Growers tap underground offerings

Sean Ellis/Capital Press Fish Breeders of Idaho owner Leo Ray, left, talks about his aquaculture operation Oct. 23 in Hagerman, Idaho. Idaho has 1,100 geothermal wells and springs, which can be used to raise fish and even alligators.

Geothermal energy allows fish farms to maintain perfect temperatures

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

BOISE, Idaho -- A discussion of how farmers and rural communities can benefit from Idaho's abundant geothermal resources was one of the highlights of the 11th Annual Harvesting Clean Energy Conference.

The three-day conference kicked off Oct. 23 with a tour of clean energy projects in southern Idaho, including a fish farm in Hagerman that uses geothermal energy to produce a wide array of fish and even alligators.

Idaho has 1,100 geothermal wells and springs and the resource "is the most underutilized natural resource we have in the state," conference participants were told by Leo Ray, owner of Fish Breeders of Idaho. "I'm amazed at how few people have picked up on this resource and utilized it."

Ray's operation is an example of how geothermal energy can be utilized by agricultural producers, particularly fish farmers. The Hagerman Valley near Twin Falls includes much of Idaho's aquaculture industry, which ranks No. 1 in the country in trout production and is a major player in the commercial fish market.

Fish Breeders uses eight wells with temperatures ranging from 90 to 95 degrees to produce catfish, trout, tilapia, sturgeon and caviar, alligators and tropical fish.

Ray said the hot water, which is mixed with colder surface water, has been critical to his ability to raise fish successfully. Tilapia will die if the water temperature falls below 58 degrees and catfish quit growing if the water is below 60 degrees.

While he was able to raise 2,000 pounds of catfish on half an acre in California, Ray can raise 500,000 pounds on half an acre in Idaho because the geothermal energy enables him to maintain the perfect water temperature.

He started with catfish in 1971 and in 1975 became the first person in this country to raise commercial tilapia. He added trout in 1980, alligators in the early 1990s and sturgeon in 1998. In the last year, he has started raising 60 species of tropical fish for the aquarium market.

Ray said the fish farming supported by geothermal energy has also led to opportunities for other crops. For example, the barley industry is trying to develop a variety low in phosphorus that fish farmers can use as feed.

A large portion of the nation's mink industry is centered in the area, and dead fish are used to feed those animals.

Ken Neeley, a technical hydrogeologist with the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said Idaho's geothermal energy, which is located mostly in the southern part of the state in rural areas hit hard by the economic downturn, can be used for other purposes, including heating greenhouses and buildings, to create jobs in those areas.

"I believe there are both large-scale and small-scale possibilities for geothermal in this state," Neeley said.

Former Idaho legislator and licensed well driller Lee Barron also spoke about efforts to use geothermal heat to create large amounts of energy in rural communities.

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