Geothermal greenhouse project gains momentum

Heeding an old African proverb — Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today — the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) continues building on a project that could promise not only to boost the local economy but put Pagosa Springs on the map as an avatar of community involvement, using sustainable energy resources for the development of permaculture.

“What we have is far more than conceptual,” said Michael Whiting, GGP committee member, at a recent meeting in Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon’s office.

Indeed, in recent weeks, the GGP has made important strides towards taking a geothermal greenhouse plan from an amalgam of disparate ideas to a definite scheme for local economic growth.

With geothermal water allocated for the project and raw water forthcoming from PAWS, GGP members have initiated an aggressive pursuit of grants to fund the project. Counting as in-kind donations, the land and water provide a substantial bulk of contributions that, added in with pledged surveying by Civil Design Team and dirt work by Hart Construction, provide the kind of financial foundation that grantors look for when deciding to fund a project.

GGP committee member Sheila Berger submitted a grant application to Sen. Michael Bennet’s office last Friday with an eye on wrangling money from Colorado’s 2009 federal appropriations. Furthermore, with President Obama’s stimulus package emphasis on alternative energy and jobs creation, the GGP believes their project is a perfect fit for those funds — with the exception that the project would not be ready to break ground tomorrow.

“If they’re looking for shovel ready,” said Whiting, “this ain’t it.”

Stimulus money aside, committee members are looking to a variety of sources for money, private and public sector grants, and are considering funding sources as diverse as corporate sponsorship and state or federal funds for economic, recreational and alternative energy development. In fact, with parts of the project designated as a community garden and visitor’s center, the greenhouse would meet the definition of a community park and could thus qualify for Archuleta County Ballot Issue 1A funds as well as Greater Outdoors Colorado money.

One crucial development towards procuring funding is a “fiscal agency” provided by the Southwest Land Alliance. Approved by its board last month, the role as fiscal agent by the SLA provides the project with a nonprofit status that would provide incentive for potential donors and backers. “We’re in a position to write grants to anyone, for anything,” Whiting said, “As a 501(c)3, our nonprofit status allows in-kind donors to write off materials or work they bring to the project.”

Hoping to draw water from various wells, the GGP is not ruling out largesse from local philanthropists and well-wishers. “We need to appeal to the Browns and the Whittingtons and the Levines and all the other local heavy-hitters on this,” Whiting said.

However, hoping to appeal to smaller-scale donors, the GGP has planned a ribbon-cutting ceremony for April 16 at the project site. The event, set for noon that day, would announce the viability of the project to local residents, inaugurate Pagosa area Earth Week festivities, and, hopefully, loosen more than a few purse strings.

By the time the ribbon is cut and the mayor cleaves the ground of Centennial Park with his chrome-plated shovel, the GGP should have conceptual drawings available to show the public how the project will look and what kind of footprint it will create downtown, as well as other informational material explaining both the purpose and merits of the project.

Pending funding responses, the GGP has developed an inchoate plan for the project that would include three to five domes (from local company Growing Spaces). As currently conceived, the project would include two to three 51-foot domes to serve as community gardens and pilot projects, with one to two 33-foot domes used as a visitor’s center and exhibition garden. Designated as the first phase of the project, the public geothermal greenhouses would hopefully generate enough interest to establish the groundwork for a Phase II — commercial applications of geothermally-heated greenhouses.

“Think of this (Phase I) as a petri dish,” Whiting said, “And think of that (Phase II) as 24-months out. Essentially, this (Phase I) is a two-year feasibility study. There has to be a business component on the back end,” he added.

Plans for Phase I would make the project almost entirely self-sustaining, using geothermal water for heating and solar energy (through photovoltaic solar panels) to provideelectrical power.

“We’d like to keep this entirely off the grid,” Whiting said.

Larger plans for the project look towards various elements promoting Pagosa Springs as a standard bearer in green, sustainable energy and permaculture. Such identification would hopefully attract visitors to the area who would not have normally designated Pagosa Springs as a destination. Furthermore, by involving educational institutions from various levels, the greenhouses would not only provide opportunities for learning and study but could potentially provide groundwork (and, perhaps, institutional support) for internships, certificates, or even degreed programs in areas as far-reaching as alternative energy technology, horticulture and botany.

Finally, the project would provide tangible resources important to the area: jobs and organically-grown produce. As many as a dozen jobs could be created in order to staff all aspects of the greenhouses. Produce grown in the greenhouses would be made available to local businesses and restaurants that, in turn, would advertise their produce as “organically and locally grown, right here in Pagosa Springs.”

As local and national conditions continue to spiral downwards in an apparent free-fall, the geothermal greenhouses represent not only a creative response to the crisis but a template for how a community can pull together to weather the storm. With various local government entities providing support for the project, along with local businesses and individuals, the project could prove to become an important landmark for what the community is today and what it could be in the future. Certainly, the GGP hopes that the greenhouses grow much more than plants.

jim@pagosasun.com