Best of the West: Tapping into geothermal opportunities; protecting golden eagles from wind turbines; a mysterious purple mushroom; the 75th anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting April 25, 2022. (Photos courtesy of Mark Kuiper and Caitlin Dowd)

When thinking about renewable energy, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Likely solar, hydro or wind power. However, while those technologies continue to lead the way, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently reported that geothermal production is quickly catching up in this U.S., which leads the world in geothermal electricity generation and produced 16 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2021 — attracting the attention of both public and private investors. 

The Department of Energy recently announced plans to invest $84 million in geothermal energy pilot projects, with a goal to deploy more than 60 gigawatts of geothermal electricity-generating capacity by 2050. The U.S. Department of Defense is exploring the use of funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to install geothermal energy on military bases, in Oklahoma and Texas. 

Schools are also looking to the resource as a long-term, cost-saving investment. Palmer Ridge high school in Colorado is implementing a $2.4 million geothermal system anticipated to result in a payback in nine years. 

In addition to traditional use, western researchers are developing innovative technology to increase access to geothermal energy. A scientist at the University of Oklahoma is exploring the possibility of turning spent oil and gas wells into clean energy geothermal wells. The heat from the wells would provide heat to water lines — removing the need for electricity in the process. The University of California Berkley drilled a 400-foot hole underground to study geothermal heat exchange and build a system that stores heat to regulate indoor temperatures. Wyoming is funding a statewide geothermal market analysis to develop a plan for geothermal opportunities in electricity production, direct use and heat pump application. 

Geothermal energy could also create new revenue streams from critical minerals found at power plants. MP Materials out of Nevada is working on a project near California’s Salton Sea that has the potential to produce 20,000 metric tons of lithium annually — 10 times the current U.S. demand, which is discussed further in a previous Best of the West on critical minerals. The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Washington is also developing a patent-pending technology that could unlock vast quantities of lithium from geothermal brines.

Wildlife-Turbine Collisions: Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado created software with the Department of Energy that can predict the flight paths of golden eagles and limit wildlife-turbine collisions by informing developers and operators about how wind turbines and eagles can safely share space. The ‘Stochastic Soaring Raptor Simulator’ simulates the routes that golden eagles are most likely to take based on the features of specific regions, including atmospheric conditions. The model then calculates where favorable updrafts could occur and where wind turbines could be added without interrupting the bird's flight parths.

Celebrating 75 Years of Conservation: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. When President Harry S. Truman established the park in 1947, it was the only park designated as a memorial park in the National Park System. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a law that changed the park from a memorial park to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The law also placed more than 29,000 acres under the National Wilderness Preservation System. “Theodore Roosevelt National Park is a true gem for North Dakota,” said National Park Service Superintendent, Angie Richman. “The Memorial Park designation was an integral step in preserving our cultural and natural resources along with honoring Theodore Roosevelt for his conservation efforts.” To promote the park’s anniversary, the North Dakota Department of Commerce recently released a short film.

A Mysterious Purple Mushroom: While on a hike in Arizona's Santa Catalina Mountains, a college student stumbled upon a ‘rare purple mushroom’ that the state had never recorded. After DNA sequencing and online discussions with mushroom experts, researchers at the University of Arizona determined that the mushroom was an ‘Entoloma occidentale variety metallicum.’ According to the U.S. Forest Service, the species usually grows in low to mid-elevation mixed conifer-hardwood stands. Scientists speculate there are more purple mushrooms scattered at high elevations, and that the information from this discovery could provide important insights for generations to come.

Training Tomorrow’s Biologists: The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is partnering with Emporia State University to open King Lake for public fishing. Students taking Fish Ecology and Fisheries Management courses will manage the lake with the oversight of KDWP Fisheries biologists. “The presence of a public fishing lake on our campus that is collaboratively managed by our students and the agency will provide unique applied-learning opportunities to our Fisheries and Wildlife students,” said Dr. Brent Thomas, dean of Emporia State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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