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In the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. Forest Service is set to open more than 80,000 acres for potential geothermal power development. Translation - companies could apply for permits to build power plants that would harness the heat beneath the surface to spin turbines and generate electricity. This would be taking place in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Ashley Ahearn of member station KUOW reports.
ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Geologists Dave Tucker and Pete Stelling are getting ready to hike into the Mount Baker Hot Springs.
DAVE TUCKER: Yeah, here we are at the trailhead.
AHEARN: Industrial-scale geothermal power has been a dream clean energy source since the '70s. Large geothermal plants are online in California and Nevada. But in the volcanic Northwest, the Earth's heat has been mainly tapped for small-scale, local heating needs, not big-time electricity generation yet. The faint smell of sulfur greets us as we arrive at the hot Springs.
TUCKER: Now you can smell it. I got a little whiff of it back there.
AHEARN: Now, if you're picturing a beautiful, bubbling pool surrounded by ferns, stop. The place is trashed - beer bottles and cans, orange peels, a discarded bra in the mud next to a waist-deep pool of murky water. This isn't just a hot spot for geothermal activity. It's also a hot spot for local college kids who are looking to soak in the springs. Dave Tucker walks through the mess to stick his temperature sensor into the pool.
TUCKER: Got 101.3 - that's Fahrenheit - 101.4, 101.5. And imagine if you could stick a probe even 20 feet under the ground.
AHEARN: There's more heat where this water came from - enough to interest energy companies and utilities. The Snohomish Public Utility District plans to apply for a lease to build a geothermal plant in the area that would power roughly 20,000 homes. Adam Lewis is with the utility, which has spent about $5 million exploring geothermal potential in Washington.
ADAM LEWIS: It just makes so much sense for society, where we have these needs for power, to take advantage of the things that have been presented to us.
AHEARN: At this point, no leases have been issued and there are no specific geothermal development proposals on the table, but environmentalists are raising their concerns.
TOM UNIACK: We're talking about, you know, facilities, fences, utility lines, roads.
AHEARN: Tom Uniack is the conservation director for Washington Wild. It's 1 of 15 environmental groups that submitted comments of the Forest Service's proposed lease. The groups are pushing for stronger protections on rivers and roadless areas, as well as old-growth sections of the forest.
UNIACK: While all of our organizations support clean, renewable energy and addressing climate change, we want to make sure that we're not kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
AHEARN: Uniack says there's a balance.
UNIACK: To identify clean, renewable sources of energy, but not at the expense of the few roadless forests and intact watersheds that we have left.
PETE STELLING: Now you can see the total change in...
AHEARN: Harnessing geothermal power does come with some local environmental impacts. But geologist Pete Stelling says...
STELLING: We're in a situation now where we can't afford to be hamstrung by not-in-my-backyard. If we want to save the environment and be the environmentalists that we hope that we are, then we need to consider what we're doing on the bigger scale.
AHEARN: Once the Forest Service announces its final leasing decision, companies can begin applying for individual permits to develop geothermal plants. Each project will then have to go through a full environmental review. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.
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