Warren Buffett's Long Quest to Build A Geothermal Power Plant  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Forbes has an article on Warren Buffett's interest in geothermal power - Warren Buffett's Long Quest to Build A Geothermal Power Plant.

Here’s a sobering sign of the challenges facing the geothermal industry: Even Warren Buffett has spent the better part of a decade trying to build a single geothermal power plant in California.

MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, which is controlled by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, received the green light from state regulators back in 2003 for its 159-megawatt Black Rock project in the desert east of San Diego. But by 2008, MidAmerican’s CalEnergy subsidiary had yet to break ground on Black Rock as required by its license, and with the economy in free fall as the financial crisis took hold the California Energy Commission granted the company a three-year extension to begin construction.

With that deadline approaching last month, regulators gave CalEnergy another three-year extension after the company cited obstacles ranging from financing and securing a spot on the transmission system to a steam pipe shortage, according to commission records. CalEnergy now has until Dec. 18, 2014 to start putting steel into the ground.

“I’d love to see this industry develop faster,” Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission, said in something of an understatement at a geothermal industry roundtable discussion in San Francisco on Wednesday.

That’s not just a bureaucratic platitude. Douglas, the former chair of the energy commission, noted that existing geothermal plants currently provide 4.5% of California’s electricity and are crucial to meeting the state’s ambitious renewable energy targets, especially as aging nuclear power plants are mothballed in the years ahead as their licenses expire. ...

After all, geothermal plants, which tap reservoirs of underground hot water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines, use decades-old technology that produces power around the clock, unlike solar and wind. And given there’s a potential 7,000 to 8,000 megawatts of geothermal energy to be tapped in California, the opportunity would seem to be boundless.

The short answer is the geothermal industry looks a lot like the oil and gas business but without the outsized profits. There’s the same steep upfront costs of drilling for wells that may come up dry – geothermal prospectors can spend tens of millions on exploratory drilling. And while an oil well can put a petroleum company in the black as soon as the crude starts flowing, a geothermal developer won’t see a dime until a power plant is licensed, built and begins to generate electricity, a process that can take years as Buffett has discovered.

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