Region 1: The Basin and Range

The Basin and Range region is named for its erratic and abrupt changes in elevation and topography. Not surprisingly, deserts, mountain ranges, lakes, and valleys can be found within this region. A famous geologist from the 1880s, Clarence Dutton, once said the parallel valleys and mountains looked like an “army of caterpillars crawling northward.” With some of the lowest and highest points in the contiguous US, the region is prime for wind, hydroelectric, and solar energy production. Although natural gas provides much of the region’s power, most of this resource is imported from elsewhere.

Unfortunately, because this area is home to some of the most unusual and inhospitable ecosystems in the world (the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, among others) and its large cities are located hundreds of miles apart, the human population has been spread out over long distances of deserts and mountain ranges, making the delivery of petroleum and natural gas products difficult. Further complicating these difficulties is the fact that the presence of pipelines in the region remains highly controversial. However, this region is rich in tectonic activity, and several research projects are underway by the USGS to study the possibility of significantly increasing the harvest of geothermal energy. The Sedimentary Geothermal Research Project, headed by a team from the USGS and the Utah Geological Survey, has tested several sites and found temperatures of 93°C (200°F) a mere 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) below the surface. Therefore, the area has the potential to become a major energy provider for the eastern and central parts of this region in the next decade.

How does geothermal energy work?

Geothermal power stations use steam to power turbines that generate electricity. The steam is created either by tapping a source of heated groundwater or by injecting water deep into the Earth where it is heated to boiling. Pressurized steam is then piped back up to the power plant, where its force turns a turbine and generates power. Water that cycles through the power plant is injected back into the underground reservoir to preserve the resource.

There are three geothermal sources that can be used to create electricity. Geopressurized or dry steam power plants utilize an existing heated groundwater source, generally around 177°C (350°F) in temperature. Petrothermal or flash steam power plants are the most common type of geothermal plant in operation today, and they actively inject water to create steam. Binary cycle power plants are able to use a lower temperature geothermal reservoir by using the warm water to heat a liquid with a lower boiling point, such as butane.The butane becomes steam, which is used to power the turbine.