Warm Waters: Idaho’s History of Geothermal Energy

Geothermal Geyser

In the search for renewable energy, people have found innovative ways to use their local resources in order to save the strain on the environment as well as their wallets. In 1931, the first vertical wind turbine was built. In 1954, the first solar cell was formed. But long before these projects began, people living in Idaho were using the state’s unique geological traits to stay warm, heat their water, and maintain a sustainable lifestyle.

What is the Secret to Idaho’s Geothermal Success?

Idaho shares part of its Eastern border with Yellowstone National Park, the location of a famous supervolcano, the Yellowstone Caldera. The caldera extends at least 400 miles below the Earth’s surface, and empties into a magma pool less than 100 miles below Yellowstone Park itself. This magma pool creates the geysers iconic to Yellowstone, including Old Faithful. However, the majority of this magma pool actually extends across Southern Idaho, warming the state from the ground up.

In fact, Idaho holds the record for the most usable hot spring pools in the United States - 130 pools in total, formed from the geothermal activity below Idaho’s surface. These pools are primed vacation destinations for people all over the country, and they are the beginning of the Idaho’s rich history with geothermal energy.

History of Idaho’s Geothermal Energy

Geothermal Drilling

Before settlers and trappers began to explore Idaho’s lands, Native American tribes like the Shoshone and Nez Perce used the hot springs as meeting places. Some of the artwork left behind in the rocks along the springs can still be seen today.

In the early 19th century, as Idaho’s wilderness attracted intrepid trappers, miners, and settlers who looked to earn money, they quickly discovered the abundant hot springs and used the energy for both water supply and heating. It would take several more decades for Idaho’s occupants to industrialize the resource, but in 1892, Boise built the first district heating system in the world from the hot springs.

Eventually, private businesses began to open up in Idaho, as people staked claims on the hot springs to open resorts and spas. At least ten different geothermal spas have been in operation in Idaho since the late nineteenth century. However, soon the geothermal energy was being used for more innovative purposes. In 1930, Thomas F. Edward used geothermal energy to heat his commercial greenhouse, the first of its kind. Another entrepreneur, Leo Ray, was the first person to use geothermally heated water to farm fish in 1973.

The 1970s saw a lot of growth in geothermal development, and five more independent district heating systems opened in Idaho, three of them in Boise. However, the increased water usage started to lower the water levels faster than they could replenish, and the Idaho Department of Water Resources restricted development in the geothermal industries in the 80s, abandoning any energy projects including an intended geothermal power plant at Raft River.

The future of using geothermal energy as an alternative method of power grew more unlikely as the years passed, until in 2002 the U.S. Geothermal Inc. purchased the Raft River property and began to finish and expand the project.

Usage of the Geothermal Energy

Natural Hot SpringThe hot springs formed by the geothermal energy below the surface of the Earth are still as popular to the people of Idaho as they were over a thousand years ago. The cleansing nature of the minerals within the water offers both psychological relaxation as well as physiological benefits like clearer skin, stronger nails and hair, and relief for respiratory problems. Furthermore, given that many of the hot springs can be found in remote locations, it is quite an experience to have hiked a distance to be rewarded with a hot spring bath!

Thomas F. Edward’s method of using geothermal water to heat his greenhouses made his business extremely successful, and Edward’s Greenhouses is currently in the 4th generation of ownership. Other greenhouse businesses were inspired by Edward, and have been operation in Idaho since the 1930s. Geothermal heat pumps are placed in wells that are drilled deep into the crust of the Earth, which pumps the warmth up using a coolant system similar to that of a refrigerator. Not only have commercial greenhouses used this method, but residential greenhouses can also tap into Idaho’s geothermal energy for their less demanding needs.

Leo Ray’s usage of the heated geothermal water to raise fish was quite effective, and he has expanded over the years to raise not only catfish, but sturgeon, tilapia, and even alligator as well. Though Leo Ray is not the first to be an active part of the aquaculture industry, his geothermal methods of mixing the warmed water with cold spring water provided a new way for other aquaculturists in the area to raise non-native species.  

The Raft River Geothermal Site has been estimated to have a maximum power production potential of 110 MW, though is currently only being used for 10 MW as per Idaho Power regulations. However, U.S. Geothermal Inc. has expanded to include three more wells with about the same power production potential, and hopes to increase the usage of its wells to supply more power to Idaho. Idaho, coincidentally, has been ranked by the Department of Energy as one of the five least expensive states for consumer electricity, which is earned in part by the geothermal power plant on Raft River.

Looking to the Future

Geothermal development has been an integral part of Idaho’s history, from its beginning up to the modern day. Efforts today are still made to innovate and progress Idaho’s usage of its abundant geothermal resources. So long as people are aware that alternative energies like this exist, there will still be efforts to help bring affordable, clean energy to everyone who needs it.

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