Progress made in geothermal greenhouse project

Bringing big guns to the table, a meeting at the office of Pagosa Spring’s Mayor Ross Aragon’s office indicated just how far the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) has progressed, in a short amount of time, toward becoming a potential Pagosa area landmark.

In attendance on Monday were representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. John Salazar and Gov. Bill Ritter, offering support and advice on how to pursue funding. Ed Morlan, executive director of the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado, also participated, giving input on how the project would fit into a broader scheme of economic development.

Appealing to Hew Hallock (representing the Governor’s Energy Office), John Whitney (regional director for Salazar’s office), Morlan and GGP board member Michael Whiting illustrated how far the geothermal greenhouse project had advanced. “The survey work, dirt work and environmental impact studies are all in place or under way,” Whiting said, responding to Hallock’s statements regarding requirements for stimulus package money.

“From what we’re hearing,” said Hallock, “grant money will be going to projects that are the most shovel ready, that promise jobs creation.”

Hallock also added that projects promoting the development of alternative energy resources would also take first priority when considering the award of federal stimulus package money. However, Hallock added, “No one is really certain what the exact guidelines will be,” stating that such guidelines would not be certain, “for at least another two or three weeks.”

The $819 billion package, passed by congress last month, includes $182 billion in tax cuts or direct payments to citizens — about 22 percent of the entire package — with the rest going to goods and services either purchased directly by the federal government or dispersed through state and local governments. Of the remaining $637 billion that would be of interest to the GGP, $18.5 billion has been designated for renewable energy programs, $5.1 billion for community development grants, $4.8 billion for other energy projects and $4.1 billion for rural development grants.

Considering the scramble for limited stimulus funds, the GGP is nonetheless confident that its project meets the burden for federal funds. Regarding the project’s use of local renewable energy resources and promise of economic stimulation and jobs creation, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem said, “It isn’t just pie in the sky dreaming about this. Local businesses and restaurants are very interested in products grown with our geothermal greenhouse. We’re not guessing about a market, there is a market.”

In the pursuit of state and federal funding, however, Morlan recommended that the committee focus on the plans at hand.

Nevertheless, the GGP has not locked itself into a static, monolithic vision of the project. Also presenting at the meeting, Pete Kasper, lead water commissioner in Pagosa Springs for the Division of Water Resources, elaborated on an idea originally forwarded by GGP committee member Sheila Berger, who suggested that geothermal water was not only good for heating a greenhouse but could actually generate electricity for the project.

“These systems are already in place in Alaska, California and Nevada,” said Berger.

As described by Kasper, geothermal water with temperatures below boiling point (such as local geothermal water) is pumped through a heat exchanger. A second “binary” fluid with a low boiling point (such as butane or pentane hydrocarbon) gets pumped through the heat exchanger at fairly high pressure (500 PSI) as it is heated by the geothermal water. With decreased mass of the binary fluid particles, the heat from geothermal water is sufficient to vaporize the fluid, which is then directed through a turbine.

“I believe there are units small enough to power the greenhouse,” said Kaspar, “And we could look into funding for something like that to make the greenhouse completely energy self-sufficient.”

Kasper added that he has investigated larger-scale systems for use in the town.

“There are at least forty mountain communities with geothermal water,” said Whiting, “Geothermal water doesn’t differentiate Pagosa Springs from other mountain communities. Being proximate to a ski area doesn’t make us special. We need something to set us apart. Using our water for something other than what I call ‘tourist dipping’ and being known as a green community that uses its geothermal resources for something other than tourist dipping — that helps us stand out.”

jim@pagosasun.com