PORTLAND -- The Geothermal Energy Association chose to hold its annual meeting in Portland this year, and leaders say that's in part because they see the Pacific Northwest as a new frontier for the industry.
The event starts Monday and is expected to draw more than 150 people from 17 countries to the Northwest. It includes discussions about industry trends and technology, as well as trips to Mount St. Helens, Central Oregon's Newberry Crater and Klamath Falls, where geothermal energy heats the sidewalks and buildings – including a local brewery.
There are more than a dozen geothermal projects under development across the Northwest, according to the industry's latest annual report. And industry leaders say there's a lot more to explore.
Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, says Oregon has 33 megawatts of geothermal power online. That's about enough to power the city of McMinnville, population 32,535.
"We're starting small but we have some good potential there," he said. "We're expecting to see more as the years go by."
The state also has an additional 340 megawatts under development – about enough to power the cities of Salem and Eugene. And the U.S. Geological Survey estimates Oregon's geothermal resources could produce 1,800 megawatts more that have yet to be discovered.
"We're still discovering geothermal resources –- particularly in the Pacific Northwest -- which is very much at the front end of the curve," Gawell said.
How did the Northwest become a new frontier for geothermal energy?
Gawell said back in the 1970s and '80s, the federal government invested a lot of money in exploring for geothermal energy. But the industry chose to use that money in areas outside the Northwest where the price of electricity was higher.
"They got to Oregon, Washington and Idaho and they saw the cheap hydropower you had," he said. "And they said, 'Nothing is going to compete with hydro. Let's spend our money in California, Nevada and elsewhere.'"
So, there are still quite a few places in the Northwest that might have geothermal resources that have yet to be explored.
Doug Glaspey, president and founder of U.S. Geothermal in Boise, says his company is exploring a new project outside of Vale, Oregon. And he knows of several other companies that are hoping to develop new geothermal energy projects elsewhere in the state.
Now that a lot of other areas have been explored and developed, Glaspey said companies are coming to the Northwest in the hopes of expanding.
"If you're going to continue growing a company, you've have to look elsewhere, and that elsewhere right now is the Pacific Northwest," he said.
To build a successful geothermal project, you need a hot spot underground with enough hot water to supply a power plant. Those conditions are usually found in active volcanic regions, he said, and the Northwest certainly qualifies.
"The Northwest has a nice chain of volcanoes," Glaspey said. "There are certainly highly prospective areas to find geothermal sites. It just has to be found, explored and developed."