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Geothermal energy at Pilgrim Hot Springs could help Nome’s costly power problem

By Alexis Fernandez Photojournalist: John Thain - 7:33 AM November 24, 2014

Alaska’s oil boom days may be more numbered than we realize. Because of this, a popular hot springs near Nome is hoping to tap into an underground heat source to help solve its rising electricity costs.

The site is located on the outskirts of Nome, about 60 miles away in a valley surrounded by mountains.

“It’s a very unique place,” said Kevin Behnke, a longtime Nome resident.

For decades, Alaskans have traveled to this oasis known as Pilgrim Hot Springs.

“I grew up in this area, so my whole family has been here since the ’30s,” said Behnke of the hot springs.

It started as a healing place for Eskimos in the surrounding area. Today, however, locals like Behnke want to use the hot springs for more than just a healing soak — they want to harness it for power.

Residents like Benhke can pay more than three times what people in Anchorage do for electricity (up to 40 cents a kilowatt), primarily because they generate half of it with expensive diesel.

“It’s a seesaw here when it comes to diesel,” said John Handeland, general manager with Nome Joint Utility System. “We do not know from one year to the next what the cost is going to be and we have zero control over it.”

Handeland says during the wintertime, the City of Nome can use up to 6 megawatts of electricity. About half or more comes from wind power generated by turbine farms at Banner Peak. But it’s not consistent.

“It comes at times that are often less than optimal,” he said.

So Handeland is looking back to the place Eskimos used for healing for geothermal energy to supply the other half of the city’s electricity, which would stabilize the costs for residents for years to come.

Gwenn Holdmann with Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been leading a research team to find out if that’s possible.

ACEP drilled a test well this summer, and so far the results are promising.

“So this particular well is drilled to several hundred feet, and it’s capable of producing maybe 300 kilowatts of power,” Holdmann said.

That power would be used for on-site development.

The team is hoping to drill another well nearby that would be capable of producing at least 2 megawatts of electricity that could be delivered to Nome through a 50-mile, $50-million transmission line.

The plant would use a binary system, a type driven by heating liquid. A well would extract the steam from hot water from the earth’s core, transferred to fluid, then used to spin a turbine to create electricity.

This would help control costs for Behnke and help create a stable future for others in Nome.

The next step for Pilgrim Hot Springs is more research this winter. After that, Bering Straits Native Corporation — the owner — will begin seeking private funding from either the state or private investors. BSNC is the managing partner of Unaatuq, LLC, the consortium of village corporations and tribal interests that purchased the property.

So far, the state has spent $3 million on exploration.

Nome Utility has also signed a purchase agreement with the developer, Potelco, a major U.S. supplier of power-generation technology and services.

If all funding is secured, the geothermal power plant could be built as early as next summer.

Bering Straits also hopes to one day use the site to build greenhouses to grow food, and possibly create a tourism industry at the hot springs.

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