It may seem like solar power gets all the headlines nowadays, especially for single-family detached homes. It’s become relatively rare for geothermal heating and cooling systems to be installed on this type of small scale. Yet, California has been a global leader in geothermal energy for more than a decade and continues to do so with new projects and power plants. The most recent development is coming out of a legal settlement between two different energy providers in the state: The Imperial Irrigation District and CAISO.
Three years ago, IID sued the nonprofit corporation, CAISO, that manages most of California’s power grid. The lawsuit accused the grid operator of stifling clean energy development in one of the state’s poorest counties and engaging in aggressive business practices with the intention of destroying the Imperial Irrigation District altogether. Why collaborate with existing resources, when you can run a company out of business and seize these resources for yourself or just leave them isolated from the marketplace? Or so the claim went.
In March of 2018, the two companies reached a legal settlement that was presented as a win-win. CAISO agreed to upgrade a major power line that would enable Imperial Valley to readily deliver/sell surplus energy generated by additional geothermal plants that would be built along the south shores of the Salton Sea. It will also enable and incentivize more solar power generation in the region as well. CAISO has also agreed in principle to promote geothermal as well as solar power to the state authorities with which it so closely connected.
Geothermal power delivered through this updated power line could deliver a big chunk of renewable energy to the SoCal area. The project has been in the works for years, but it’s far from a done deal. So, what’s the catch? It’s the water. Farmers and agricultural companies in the Imperial Valley largely oppose these new geothermal plants for one reason. The water used by these plants wouldn’t be subject to the same apportionment rules that govern farming during water shortage years. For perspective, what we’re talking about is the largest single share of Colorado River water in the West. The issue has yet to be fully resolved. In one scandalous complication, one family farmer seemed willing to sell out the rest in exchange for a special exemption.
It’s been proposed, but it’s unclear if the rules can be changed to guarantee the farmers access to water even when there’s a shortage. We’re also not sure if the geothermal plant operations could be scaled back so that the agricultural community wouldn’t be hit so hard during shortages, while residents throughout the state can pay slightly higher energy costs. After all, we don’t just need renewable energy sources, we redundant renewable energy sources with increased storage capacity.
When it comes to choosing between powering our homes and putting food on the our tables without totally wrecking the planet, we don’t know the answer. We wish we did. We also want to say these types of land-use choices aren’t just an Imperial Valley or SoCal issue, either. Is it easier to pay more for food that travels further to reach our stores, or is it easier to ration the energy consumed by our homes? It’s also worth pointing out that geothermal isn’t the only type of renewable energy production that takes water. We hope the decision-makers put smart, dedicated people in a room to make the best decision for everyone based on the information available.