Land a geothermal energy job
In a time when many industries are declining, geothermal energy is experiencing a 12 percent increase. The United States ranks first in geothermal energy production, and Nevada leads the country, according to a new report by the Geothermal Energy Association. Nevada’s 21 geothermal operating facilities produce more than 441 megawatts per year, with more than 2,000 megawatts in the pipeline. Eleven projects in six Nevada counties are entering final drilling and construction stages this year, according to Sen. Harry Reid and GEA executive director Karl Gawell during a recent press conference call.
“One reason geothermal is so good is it goes 24 hours a day, whereas with wind or solar, they are cyclical,” said Reid.
Reno-based Ormat Technologies is the largest geothermal developer in the country, with a gigawatt of power worldwide. Public policy manager Paul Thomsen weighed in on how people could break into the industry.
Young students starting out would do well to consider fields in geology or engineering, coupled with a strong background in business, finance and project development. “You can be a brilliant geologist, but if you can’t put together a business plan and get financing for that project, you’re not going to get very far,” he said.
However, he added, you don’t need an advanced degree to get a job in geothermal energy. The company contracts out people in Nevada’s existing construction, labor and transportation sectors to build and service its power plants. But Ormat also often hires people from California or Oregon, where workers are experienced in drilling for oil and gas, to operate drill rigs in Nevada. “We’re actually importing those blue-collar jobs, which isn’t right,” he said. And to reach the stage of drilling holes, there’s a need for people with permitting and planning experience.
Truckee Meadows Community College offers a geothermal plant operator course from which Ormat has hired employees. Thomsen added that University of Nevada, Reno has created a National Geothermal Academy, which will offer an eight-week course from June 20 to Aug. 12 that will cover everything from how to find a resource, drill a well, design a power plant and develop a project. (Registration deadline has passed.) “I think a lot of the industry in Nevada is going to be looking at who attends that course and who’s looking for a job,” said Thomsen.
Thomsen also thinks students with both a mining and geothermal background will do well in Nevada, since they’re both resource extraction industries. “A mining geologist and geothermal geologist look for almost the same things underground. They find gold, we find hot water.”
Challenges to the geothermal industry include funding for research and development. An Ormat project was recently halted after Elko County Commissioners rejected a tax abatement proposal for it. And although Nevada got $61 million in stimulus funds for 18 geothermal projects in the past few years, there are still parts of Nevada with known hot springs where geothermal testing has never been conducted. It’s also expensive to build a geothermal power plant—about three times as much as natural gas, but cheaper energy costs in the long run, according to Gawell.
Despite its growth potential, immediate geothermal jobs are in short supply. “From a geothermal perspective, we had one power plant built in 2010,” said Thomsen. “That was the only one in the country—in Nevada.”