Geothermal drilling company booming as alternative energy source becomes more popular

ThermaSource, a Santa Rosa geothermal company, is in the midst of major expansion as energy companies scramble to find steam for new power plants as oil and natural gas prices hover near record highs.

The company has raised $93 million over the past two years, including $41 million last month to purchase drilling rigs. It expects to double employment, from 200 currently to more than 420 by the end of the year, as it expands operations in California and Nevada, and moves into the Caribbean.

Forty trucks bearing sections of a new drilling rig will deliver the derrick this week to the Bottle Rock plant in Lake County, where ThermaSource is drilling steam wells.

While the geothermal industry is known for boom and bust cycles, energy industry veterans said the latest surge in activity appears to have staying power.

"My opinion is this will keep up. I just don't see any decline in energy prices," said Rich Estabrook, a geothermal expert for the federal Bureau of Land Management in Northern California. "Drilling rigs are in such demand it's almost impossible to get a drilling rig right now."

Only a handful of U.S. companies have the expertise to explore for seams of steam as deep as two miles underground, and ThermaSource is the only one specializing in the field. The other companies also are busy drilling for new sources of oil with crude prices near record highs.

"We're in a pretty good spot right now. We made the move when it was necessary and we're trying to keep the rigs busy," said Louis Capuano, ThermaSource's chief executive.

Capuano founded ThermaSource in 1980 after the petroleum engineer worked six years for several energy companies at The Geysers, the world's largest geothermal operation, straddling Sonoma and Lake counties.

Just two years ago, ThermaSource had four employees. But the company has seen demand for its services explode, driven by a series of market forces.

Steadily rising electricity prices combined with soaring oil and natural gas costs make geothermal power more profitable. Utilities in 25 states also are required to purchase more power from renewable sources.

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