Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • CAREL OTTE (1922-2018)



    CAREL OTTE, geothermal pioneer and innovator, passed away peacefully at home in La Canada, California, on Saturday, July 21, 2018. He was prominent in leading the development of geothermal energy both in the United States and worldwide, starting with a personal involvement in the early 1960s. As president of Unocal Geothermal, he grew the company to be the largest producer of geothermal electricity in the world. His technical and leadership achievements were central to the creation of a geothermal industry in the United States, as well as in the Philippines and Indonesia. He also contributed to the national interest by giving testimony before Congress, writing public and academic articles, and generally promoting the technology of geothermal development. In 1972 Union’s geothermal operations at The Geysers was named one of the 10 most outstanding engineering achievements of the year by the National Society of Professional Engineers.

    Dr. Otte was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on June 29, 1922. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Amsterdam in geology and chemistry. At the start of World War II, he was too young for the Dutch military and was sent to work in a German work camp. He escaped and helped with the Dutch underground, posing as a Dutch geologist working in Austria. Recognized for his language and survival skills, he served as a captain in a Dutch contingent of the Royal Air Force after the war helping repatriate returning prisoners of war. After returning to Amsterdam, he was accepted for graduate work first at Johns Hopkins and then at Caltech in Pasadena. He completed his master’s degree in 1950 and his PhD in geology in 1954.

    Dr. Otte’s first job after Caltech was with Pure Oil Company at their research department in Illinois. He worked for a time with Shell Oil Company and, resisting a move to Calgary, returned to Pure Oil. His involvement in the geothermal industry began with a casual acquaintance with a group of people who owned land, which was known as “The Geysers,” located north of Santa Rosa, California. Inspired by the idea of utilizing this great resource, he convinced Pure Oil management to form a subsidiary called Earth Energy. When Pure merged with Union Oil Company, he became the head of the Geothermal Division. Dr. Otte was a strong advocate for geothermal energy and was instrumental in the large-scale development of The Geysers, striving to put 100 MW/year online every year through the 1980s.

    While head of the Geothermal Division, Dr. Otte was seen as an enlightened manager. He was a good listener, especially to young, new advisors. He had a knack for synthesizing a workable plan from many disparate viewpoints, as demonstrated by his weekly staff meetings in Los Angeles. He would encourage each of his staff to comment on and contribute to each other’s particular challenges. Some days that magic worked, and some days it didn’t. But he always encouraged his team.

    He expanded Union’s geothermal operations to the Imperial Valley, pioneered geothermal development in the Philippines and Indonesia, and drove geothermal resource exploration into every promising prospect around the world. Dr. Carel Otte leaves a deep legacy within the geothermal industry. Many in academia and industry benefited from his knowledge, determination, and expertise. The Geothermal Resources Council awarded him the Geothermal Pioneer Award in 1986 and he was recognized as a distinguished alumnus of Caltech in 1984. He was awarded the highest engineering honor with his election to the National Academy of Engineering.

    Throughout all his endeavors, Dr. Otte was the quintessential nobleman. His natural sensibilities invited the best contributions of talent, loyalty, and commitment to the projects he undertook. His understanding of the power and limitations of facts and science helped him assemble teams and achieve prodigious goals. He was known for his insightful questions, thoughtful responses, and ready smile.

    For all who knew him, he is fondly remembered and will be sorely missed. His wife Mary, four children, and nine grandchildren survive him.