GERLACH, NEV.—This tiny town on the edge of the Black Rock Desert is an oasis of fresh water and bubbling hot springs—and residents fear an international firm that wants to exploit those resources would destroy their 120-year-old community, while providing geothermal power to cities hundreds of miles away.
“We’re not saying that geothermal power is inherently bad; it’s just that we are kind of in the way,” said Jason Walters, who has lived in Gerlach for 17 years with his family and operates a business there. “We are inconvenient. As a community, we haven’t really been treated as stakeholders.”
Walters and other residents of Gerlach—the gateway to the annual Burning Man festival that attracts up to 80,000 people to the nearby playa in late August/early September—worry that they are being shoved aside in the nation’s headlong rush to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. They fear a 30 megawatt geothermal-industrial complex, less than a half-mile from their homes, would dry up hot springs, pollute ground water, generate constant noise, ruin views, reduce tourism, stifle economic development, undermine building foundations and light up an area that boasts some of the darkest night skies on the continent.
Ormat Technologies, whose Nevada subsidiary operates 15 geothermal plants in the Silver State, says residents’ worries are unfounded and based on misinformation. Many residents’ concerns mirror allegations made in a lawsuit against the federal government filed by the Burning Man organization, town residents, environmentalists and conservation groups. The company has said the lawsuit’s claims, and residents’ worries, just don’t hold water.
“You can ask any community where we operate a power plant if Ormat takes (them) very seriously,” said Paul Thomsen, vice president of business development for Ormat in Reno. “If we’re going to have a facility there, we need to have a positive relationship with the community. We’re going to be there for 20-plus years, so we want them to know we’ve invested in schools in rural Nevada—we’ve invested in all of those benefits for the facility that can also benefit the towns.”
Ormat’s initial proposal for the project called for two geothermal plants, an overhead power line and several miles of above-ground pipelines to be built mostly on public land managed by the federal government. In 2020, Ormat withdrew that plan from consideration by the Bureau of Land Management and replaced it with a proposal for up to 13 exploration wells. The BLM approved the plan, concluding the exploration wells would have “no significant impact” on the town or the environment.
Critics allege that the company is “segmenting” the project—advancing it in bite-sized pieces—in order to avoid scrutiny of its potential long-term impacts.
Walters said that for a long time, he kept an open mind about the issue, but now doesn’t trust Ormat and is disappointed in what he said is the BLM’s cursory “rubber-stamp” review of the project’s potential negative impacts. Previous meetings with the agency and company representatives haven’t provided residents with many answers, Walters said, and no one can guarantee a geothermal complex won’t harm the environment or negatively affect the community.
“It’s an unnecessary risk to take,” said Walters, who is particularly concerned about the town’s water supply. “… The attitude (of the company and regulators) is, ‘You’ll be fine—unless something goes wrong.’ Why should we volunteer to take the risks? Maybe they believe what they are saying, but that’s a risk that we take—nobody else. Why should we, as a community, be asked to assume any risk to our water supply that’s been functioning fine for 120 years? Why gamble that away for somebody else’s financial benefit?”
Gerlach is unincorporated, and local decisions are made by its Citizens Advisory Board. At that panel’s February meeting, 75 people—about half of the adult population of the town—attended either in person or via Zoom to speak against the Ormat’s proposal. Some of the residents who spoke complained that the company has repeatedly changed its plans and that the BLM has failed to do its job protecting the community.
“(In 2021), I was still in the buy-in stage with the project, because I liked green energy,” said Elisabeth “Schatzi” Gambrell, the former director of the Gerlach Senior Center. “When I found out that they had separated this project, and we’re now not talking about the disruption we would have with a full-time power plant that would cover several acres, I realized that I had been sold a really bad used car.”
Gerlach resident Dave Cooper retired after more than 30 years with the BLM, where he served as Black Rock National Conservation Area manager and authorized permits for the Burning Man festival. He’s an expert on the federal permitting process.
“Ormat segmented the initial project so that they didn’t have to look at the cumulative environmental and human impact of the whole development, only the exploration part of it,” said Cooper, who also is the spokesman for Friends of Black Rock-High Rock, one of the plaintiffs suing the BLM. He said the agency is required to look at the significant impacts of the entire project, not just the exploration wells, including “reasonable, foreseeable future actions” related to any permit request.
“The (2020 proposal) submitted an operations plan for full development of two power plants up here, with 23 wells, (for) production and injection, 26 miles of power lines and about another three miles of new roads for the plant and the well sites, among other things,” Cooper said.
If that happens, he said, “we’re talking about significant industrial development that would be larger than the town of Gerlach and would stretch for about four miles along the base of the Granite Mountains with the pipelines above ground. … That would mean the end of Gerlach as we know it.”
An oasis spawned an outpost
In the early years of the 20th century, the town of Gerlach evolved around a railroad depot where a rancher shipped cattle to market. For decades, it also was a mining community, where many residents worked at the US Gypsum mine and processing plant in nearby Empire. The company shut down its Nevada operations in 2011, and 95 jobs went with it. (Another firm has since reopened the mine.) For a time, the town seemed on the brink of extinction. But after an inaugural Black Rock Desert arts and counter-culture gathering in 1991, attendance at the Burning Man festival grew exponentially each year. Over the last 15 years, the event has been breathing new life into the tiny town.
At summer’s end, Burning Man rises like an apocalyptic metropolis in the midst of the dry lake bed to temporarily become the Silver State’s 10th-largest city. Burners flock to Gerlach; some festival organizers are full-time residents. Mutant art cars and Burning Man artwork can be seen around town, and an “art trail” is being developed. The festival’s notoriety attracts tourists throughout the year, as do the nearby hot springs, three nearby historic pioneer trails and the 800,000-acre Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. Bighorn sheep occupy the Granite Mountains north of town, a steep range that would be the backdrop for the geothermal complex. Hawks and golden eagles patrol the sky; chukar partridges dart among brushy slopes. Wild horses, mule deer and pronghorn antelope roam the area.
Hunters stalk desert hillsides in the fall. Hikers and star-gazers camp nearby in the spring and summer. The dry lakebed of the playa, when bare of Burners, serves as a launch pad for rocket clubs and has hosted attempts at land-speed records. “Where the pavement ends and the West begins” is among Gerlach’s many sobriquets.
The village has fewer than 200 full-time residents. Twenty-one children attend its K-12 school. Supermarkets, hospitals and most services are nearly 100 miles away. Many residents appreciate that isolation—and the tranquility that comes with living in the remote area. New structures mingle with century-old buildings made from railroad ties.
Hot springs surface in several areas around Gerlach and run under the town, as evidenced by steel grates in roadways that billow clouds of steam in cold weather. The geothermal resource is under the houses, businesses and paths residents walk every day. Some older buildings are sinking into the soft alkali soil. If geothermal plants are built and affect the hot springs, they fear, Gerlach will literally sink into the desert. They worry about the potential for noise, water pollution and the loss of the two dozen hot springs in and around the town.
Ormat’s critics have little faith in the federal government’s role in making sure those things don’t happen. The BLM is required to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS)—as it does for the Burning Man festival—if a given project may have significant environmental impacts on such things as wetlands, cultural resources, threatened/endangered species, other wildlife, water quality, or wilderness and scenic areas. In approving Ormat’s permit for exploration wells, the BLM decided to conduct an “environmental assessment,” which has less-stringent requirements than an EIS. That approval document for Ormat’s exploration project lists possible concerns, then concludes that none are matters of “significant impact.”
Burning Man, Friends of Black Rock-High Rock Inc., Friends of Nevada Wilderness, Gerlach residents and other plaintiffs sued the BLM in January, alleging that the agency failed to comply with several federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act. The suit notes that “people travel to Gerlach to experience the solitude of the vast open spaces and undeveloped vistas present in the Black Rock Desert,” and surrounding wilderness and conservation areas. A geothermal plant shoulder-to-shoulder with the town and protected areas would threaten the community and environment, according to the lawsuit, “by industrializing a portion of the Black Rock National Conservation Area with the introduction of noise, traffic, light and presence of the drilling infrastructure.”
Ormat says the lawsuit has no merit.
Previous studies indicated that the Gerlach area is a prime candidate for a geothermal plant, but Thomsen said the company is obligated to do its own exploration. Separating the exploration and utilization permit procedures, he said, works in residents’ favor.
Ormat, Thomsen said, is making sure building a plant in Gerlach is viable. “The best surveys and so forth don’t compare to actually having a production injection well, and by doing the process in two steps, we’ve actually created more opportunity for the community to comment to the BLM to review the project moving forward, so there is no advantage to Ormat,” he said.
Concerns about noise and light pollution, Thomsen said, may be based on residents’ research of older geothermal plants, which don’t have the benefit of the latest technology and designs. He said lighting for new plants is minimized and shielded; drilling and other sources of noise are muted. “Noise is limited by decibels in the permit,” he said, noting that at some projects, drill rigs are shielded with insulation. “We try to minimize noise pollution as much as possible,” he said.
Residents’ worries that the extraction and re-injection of fluids will affect hot springs and geothermal water close to the surface are also not based on facts, Thomsen said. The exploration wells will reveal whether the hot water deep in the ground is connected to the surface pools, he said.
“We need to determine that geothermal resource is separate and not connected to any surface waters or manifestations,” Thomsen said. “The geothermal reservoir needs to be isolated. … We run state-of-the-art binary technology, which requires the system to be closed—meaning if we produce geothermal fluid from a deep reservoir, we need to be able to inject the geothermal fluid back into that reservoir at depth, and that’s what we want to do with exploration.”
Although the BLM’s permit allows for 13 exploration wells, only three or four will be drilled, he said. It takes about 45 days to drill a well, Thomsen noted, so Ormat “will know in a matter of months if there is a geothermal resource there for the development of a power plant. (If) drilling results come back negative, and there is no project to be developed, we will reclaim the well pads. We will grade, (and) there will be no footprint at all to indicate we were ever there.”
Ormat representatives previously told residents and members of the Citizens Advisory Board that there was nothing it could do to help with the town’s needs, such as better power lines, roads or other improvements. Thomsen said those comments were in reference to the exploration phase of the project. If a plant is built, he said, Gerlach will get improvements and benefits.
If a plant is built, about 400 workers are needed for well-drilling and plant construction, he said. Once operational, 20 new permanent jobs will come to Gerlach. “Some people think that’s fantastic, because a 30 megawatt power plant contributes about $2 million annually in taxes, royalties and operational payroll, with almost no impact on roads, schools, hospitals or police departments, he said.
The projected millions of dollars in taxes would be paid to the Washoe County government, residents noted, so it’s uncertain how much of that windfall would directly benefit the town. “That’s something to ask the county commissioners,” Thomsen said.
If the exploration wells prove the development of the geothermal resource is viable, he said, the permitting process for plants will take two or three more years. The BLM also may determine that an environmental impact statement is needed. If and when a geothermal complex is built, Thomsen said, Ormat will provide benefits to the community.
“Being at the end of a transmission plant, we would have to work on telecom and internet, (because) our power plants are remotely monitored and reviewed by engineers, so we would we have to have state-of-the-art communication systems, and we share that with the community,” Thomsen said.
He said “subsidence”—sinking buildings, a problem already documented in Gerlach—won’t be affected for the same reason that the springs won’t dry up: The plant would tap a deep reservoir only if the company is sure the surface water won’t be affected. Ormat’s “tracer testing,” he said, identifies and tracks “the movement and location of every water molecule through our geothermal reservoir.” The results of the test wells will determine if the deep reservoir is a closed system.
The ‘right project in the wrong place’
Research studies in Iceland, the U.S. and elsewhere, however, have concluded that surface disruptions—including land subsidence, lowering of the groundwater table, increased earthquake activity and the disappearance of surface hot springs—can be consequences of developing geothermal resources. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2000 concluded that such changes in surface features, including in land elevations, “should be viewed as the rule rather than the exception.”
Thomsen said he is unaware of subsidence happening at any geothermal project around the world. Residents’ worries, he said, always need to be taken seriously, but he emphasized that the company is in an investigation phase.
“We don’t have any proposal to build a power plant there yet; we are simply doing the drilling to determine if there is a resource,” he said.
The initial application for two power plants at Gerlach, he said, was possibly the result of some “confusion … but I think BLM made a mistake, and we corrected them as quickly as we could that we wanted to do an exploration plan.”
Jason Walters believes Ormat already knows the area is a great place to build their plants—and that it’s the right project in the wrong place.
“They claim no one is necessarily going to build anything; they are just going to spend millions to explore,” Walters said. “… They already know it’s viable, because the research is already there. The reason this is such a good spot for them is because there’s a road, a power line, and there’s water—our water supply.
“This works for them, but that’s because there’s a town here. Everything here is convenient for them, everything except the people who live here. We are just in the way.”
Ky Plaskon, of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, assisted with the research for this story.
Concerned citizens should visit the Ormat facility in Reno at US395 and Mt. Rose Hwy – no impact to the community!
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