Ghost Plants Are Legacy of State’s Geothermal Fiasco : Energy: Haste made $450 million in waste at two hurriedly built sites. Steam fields proved inadequate.


All the signs of human activity are still there. Papers and manuals litter tables and desks. Handwritten charts cover some of the walls. Signs warn that “Ear Protection Is Required” to protect workers from the deafening noise.

Everything is there--except the people.

Echoing through the silent building are the footsteps of Glen Gordon, last manager of the state Department of Water Resources’ Bottle Rock Geothermal Power Plant before it was shut down in 1990. Disappointment is etched in his face. “It was a beautiful plant,” he says reverently. “Those of us who worked here were pretty proud of it.”

Nestled among the lush green hills above Napa Valley, Bottle Rock and its sister plant a few miles away stand as towering monuments to government miscalculations and mistakes. Bottle Rock has not produced a kilowatt of electricity in three years. Its sister, the South Geysers Power Plant, never opened.


When the revenue bonds on the plants are finally paid in 2024, water users will have sunk more than $450 million into the two projects, making them the state’s most expensive white elephants. The customers of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will have shouldered 80% of the cost.

The two plants were conceived with the loftiest of goals and intentions in the 1970s when clean, cheap sources of energy were being sought to offset high-priced OPEC oil.

The state, often criticized for taking too long to act, moved with such speed on the geothermal project that it was able to move from conception to finished plant in less than a decade. Critics later complained that this was one instance when government moved too fast.

In the haste to bring the facilities on-line, government officials--especially in the case of South Geysers--too quickly accepted the word of geologists and private developers who said that steam was plentiful enough at the sites to run the facilities for 30 years.

As it turned out, there was not enough steam to run South Geysers at all. At Bottle Rock, it lasted five years.

Hidden by hills and virtually inaccessible to casual passersby, the plants are largely forgotten, located near the community of Cobb, population 1,477. Many residents who own vacation cabins in nearby hamlets do not know the plants are there. Once a year they merit eight paragraphs in the Department of Water Resources 370-page annual report on the State Water Project called Bulletin 132.


This anonymity contrasts sharply with the high expectations that once surrounded them.

In the heyday of the geothermal movement, the plant sites were visited frequently by top state officials--including once by Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who brought along an entourage of reporters and photographers to record optimistic predictions of the great potential of geothermal steam.

The impetus for the Bottle Rock and South Geysers plants came in the mid-1970s when America was reeling from the shock of the OPEC oil embargo and spiraling energy costs. For California government, the need for alternative energy was particularly pressing because long-term contracts providing inexpensive electrical power for the massive State Water Project were soon to expire and officials feared large price hikes.

The water project, a critical source of water for 20 million residents, requires billions of kilowatts of electricity each year to carry water from Oroville Dam in Northern California to the end of the state’s 444-mile aqueduct at Lake Perris in Riverside County.

Geothermal power seemed an ideal solution. California is one of the few places in the world with large underground steam reservoirs, areas where underground water comes in contact with molten rock near the Earth’s surface. To tap the energy, wells are drilled and the steam piped to a power plant where it turns turbines that generate electricity.

The richest of California’s steam reservoirs was believed to be the geysers, a geothermal area 90 miles north of San Francisco that was discovered in 1847. Commercial power production began here in 1960 and many companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., had successful plants.

“There was this tantalizing idea that if you develop the geysers, you could find a renewable, reliable resource where the cost would be steady and you could break away from the price escalations and uncertainty of the oil market,” said Richard Maullin, who served as Brown’s first chairman of the state Energy Commission.

Hoping to get at least one plant on line before power contracts expired in 1983, the state quickly floated bonds to finance construction of two plants. The bonds would be paid off by customers of the State Water Project, and the project’s largest customer and biggest user of energy was the MWD.

The plans called for the state to construct and manage the plants, but the steam to run them would be purchased from private companies that would develop, operate and maintain adjacent steam fields.

To determine the availability of steam at the site of the plant, the state Department of Water Resources hastily entered into contracts with private geologists to analyze the steam field at the Bottle Rock site.

Department officials say their reports confirmed that steam would be available to run the plant at its proposed 55-megawatt capacity for 30 years.

Eugene Boudreau, a Santa Rosa geologist who has spent 10 years researching the projects in preparation for a book, maintains that is only part of the story. Although some reports were optimistic, he said others carried warnings that should have alerted officials to investigate the field further.

“But the state turned a blind eye to the negative information and particularly to the lack of information,” Boudreau said.

Construction started in 1981 on the $122-million Bottle Rock plant--a facility that state officials boasted would be unlike any other at the geysers. Power plants constructed by private industry often are squat buildings of corrugated metal. The state’s three-story structure of reinforced concrete had dark wood paneling in the reception area, a herringbone design etched in the concrete and reflecting glass windows on the top floor to give a panoramic view of the hills.

“We asked the department to consider a simple design,” said Joseph Summers, an engineer who represents several water districts served by the state project. “But they wanted to build this symbolic stuff. They were hellbent on having something very elaborate that they could show off.” Another official estimated that the state could have saved at least $20 million if the plant had been less ornate.

As construction of Bottle Rock got under way in Lake County, the state moved ahead with its plans to build another plant a few miles away in Sonoma County. The state relied on assurances from the private steam field operator, Geothermal Kinetics Inc., that there would be enough steam available to support the plant.

A later state audit found that the Department of Water Resources insisted that it did not have time for an independent analysis, even though the agency knew P G & E was having problems “locating enough steam for one of (its) plants on property adjacent to the South Geysers property.”

As it turned out, the contractor’s assurances were based on the drilling of three test wells, all in the same northwest quadrant of the steam field. The wells showed the presence of steam, but they told nothing about its availability on the remainder of the property.

During construction, the drilling yielded bad news. In 1985, the state decided to halt construction, determining that there was not enough steam to run the plant. By then, $55 million had been spent on construction. Today, South Geysers stands as a shell, completed on the outside but unfinished on the inside. Millions of dollars in unused equipment still sits in crates on the ground floor. Some has been sold to the Bechtel Corp. to recoup about $5 million.

Even as the state was throwing in the towel on South Geysers, it was formally opening the doors on what appeared to be its success story--the completed Bottle Rock plant. For the first year, the plant seemed to meet all expectations, pouring out electricity at the promised 55 megawatts--enough power to serve the needs of a city the size of Santa Rosa.

Then the steam field began to run into problems. First, a corrosive element in the steam caused problems with the piping. Then there was an ominous drop in pressure. Meanwhile, the price of oil had begun to drop dramatically. Suddenly power purchased from the private utilities was cheaper than that generated at the geothermal plant.

By the end of the decade, production at the plant had dropped to seven megawatts. Under pressure from water contractors, the state decided in September, 1990, that Bottle Rock should be closed and mothballed. The plant closed, having never generated enough electricity to offset the annual maintenance, operational and financing costs.

Defenders of the state’s geothermal venture say the failure of the plants was hard to anticipate at a time when steam field testing procedures had not been perfected and much was still unknown about the behavior of steam reservoirs.

“In hindsight, you’re looking at a program that is not successful,” said John Pacheco, the department’s senior engineer for water resources. “But economics played a big role and the crystal ball of the late 1970s . . . did not predict the drop in oil prices.”

V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy and Efficiency and Renewable Technology, an joint industry-environmental effort, said the state was an early casualty of a new industry that has learned from its mistakes. He said geothermal steam has proved to be a relatively clean form of energy and today generates 6.5% of California’s electricity from plants located at the geysers, Mono-Long Valley, the Imperial Valley and Coso Hot Springs in the high desert near Death Valley.

The geysers in Sonoma and Lake counties were overdeveloped and the state chose to locate its plants at the edge of the receding reservoir; most of the plants that continue to operate are in the center of the reservoir, White said.

He said that despite the state’s experience, geothermal energy remains a viable alternative for government. In fact, he said, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plans to develop its leases at the Coso geothermal area.

As for the state, it is no longer interested in geothermal power production and would like to sell the plants, said the state’s Pacheco. He said a Santa Rosa company has shown interest in reopening Bottle Rock.

Gordon, the former Bottle Rock manager who still works for the state and occasionally inspects the plant, believes that if new wells are drilled and old ones are reworked, the Bottle Rock plant could operate again. “The problem was never with the plant,” he said, “and I hope it operates again someday.”

For that reason, Gordon said, everything at Bottle Rock was left intact--signs still on the walls, telephones in place and manuals on the desks. All in hopes that someday somebody else would run it again.