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Geothermal: Major resource

An assessment of local geothermal resources conducted last week suggests that the Great Pagosa Aquifer is not only underutilized, but has potential as a major economic driver as well as an area-wide energy source.

Meeting with town and county officials last week, representatives from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) — part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy — concluded a two-day visit to Pagosa Springs by telling local officials that, while future research is warranted, initial indications suggest a vast resource with almost unlimited potential.

“There are a huge amount of resources,” said Gerald Huttrer, president of the Geothermal Management Company, Inc. and consultant for NREL. “The resource is way, way bigger than anybody had anticipated.”

That knowledge, said Elaine Wood, former Pagosa Springs resident and a consultant on clean energy projects with NREL, “Takes away the fear of scarcity.”

The NREL representatives had been invited to Pagosa Springs by Wood, after realizing that NREL could help the town make the most of its geothermal resources. According to Wood, her interests in Pagosa Springs’ geothermal resources were renewed when articles regarding the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership’s (GGP) proposed project began appearing in The SUN. Wood added that, after Dr. John Lund (one of the world’s foremost experts on geothermal utilization) joined NREL as the principal engineer for its geothermal program, she organized a field trip to Pagosa Springs for herself, Huttrer and Lund.

GGP board director Michael Whiting guided the three around the county during their two-day visit, introducing them to various government officials and introducing them to stakeholders in geothermal resources.

The result of the visit and subsequent analysis of the Great Pagosa Aquifer, all three agreed, was a surprising view of a resource that had been previously viewed by many as a limited pool at risk of depletion. Not only did all three concur that ample resources existed for further possible use, but that processes could be employed to replenish geothermal water taken out of the aquifer.

Calling Pagosa Springs a “pump and dump” community (meaning that geothermal water is currently dumped into the river after using it for heating), Lund proposed that future production wells be accompanied by injection wells — the means to put water back into the aquifer after drawing it up for heating or other purposes. While Lund stated that the aquifer contains ample amounts of water, injection wells would ensure adequate levels — as well as provide a psychological assurance that little danger exists of depleting the geothermal water.

Huttrer added that reinjection would not alter the aggregate temperature of the aquifer. Comparing the reinjection process to trying to cool a hot bath with a drop of cold water, Hettrer said, “A 10 to 20 degree change (in reinjected water) relative to the amount of water (in the aquifer) would be immeasurable.”

Lund and Huttrer acknowledged that more study would be required before pursuing a greatly expanded geothermal heating system. Fortunately, both declared that the DOE (and other federal agencies) had begun aggressively investigating geothermal energy, providing expanded funding for research and development.

“We’re also going to look into USDA funding,” Hettrer said, emphasizing the federal government’s decision to pursue the development of geothermal energy. “They would like to see some more geothermal projects because all they’re seeing are wind and solar.”

Huttrer added that graduate students could also be employed (at minimal to no cost) for initiating most of the research, while even a Pagosa Springs High School science class could undertake day-to-day monitoring of water levels and temperatures.

“It really wouldn’t take much,” he said.

The team suggested that heating the high school would make a good test run for an expanded geothermal heating system that, with confirmation in future studies, could eventually heat the entire downtown area of Pagosa Springs. As such, Hettrer said that the town would be uniquely positioned to present itself as a “green community” with the entire downtown area heated by renewable, clean energy.

Lund added that he believed that, even after heating the entire downtown area, the town would still have geothermal resources to heat a large complex of greenhouses without significantly denting the amount of water in the aquifer.

In fact, the GGP has been pursuing a similar project for almost two years. Long the dream child of Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, the idea has endured several inchoate and unsuccessful iterations. Conceived of as a commercial enterprise under the aegis of town government (a problematic proposal), the project appeared to be a nonstarter as late as December 2008, when the Archuleta Economic Development Association was denied a $40,000 grant for funding a feasibility study. Frustrated by AEDA’s failure, but unwilling to allow the project to flounder, in late 2008 Aragon approached several people from amongst the area’s best and brightest to reconsider the viability of a geothermal greenhouse.

Reenergized by the efforts of the newly-formed GGP, weekly meetings in early 2009 helped the project to, in the words of one committee member, “Go from something conceptual to something on the ground.”

By April of last year, the GGP held a groundbreaking ceremony, having secured a promised location (at the west end of Centennial Park) and a tentative agreement for geothermal water (to heat the greenhouses) through approval from the Pagosa Springs Town Council (the GGP signed 10-year leases for the land and water this past January).

With representatives from Rep. John Salazar’s office, as well as representatives from Senators Michael Bennet and Mark Udall’s offices attending the groundbreaking ceremony, joining officials from the town and county, April marked an important landmark in the project’s progress.

That progress was given a further boost during Bennet’s August 2009 visit, with the Senator giving the project a rousing endorsement.

After August 2009, the GGP continued to meet in order to refine details as to what the project would look like to local residents. Not stalled, the project seemed to be in momentary stasis as the group awaited word from local, regional, state and federal governments.

In January, Region 9 Economic Development District Assistant Director Laura Lewis-Marchino said that the GGP qualified as an Enterprise Zone project because it is, “Basically a nonprofit infrastructure project instrumental in creating jobs or economic benefit.”

The Enterprise Zone benefit to the GGP is that it provides direct state income tax breaks for donors: a 25-percent tax credit for monetary donations and 12.5 percent for in-kind donations.

In February, the town of Pagosa Springs signed 10-year leases with the GGP for 100 gallons per minute of its geothermal effluent, as well as the land in Centennial Park dedicated to the project (a condition of the leases is that the project would reach completion within three years).

Finally, in March, it was announced by Salazar’s office that the project was placed on the congressman’s appropriations list. Unfortunately, Salazar’s office announced in July that the project had not made the final round of selected appropriations.

Undeterred, Whiting stated that the GGP has not exhausted possible funding sources and would be pursuing that money in the months to come. Furthermore, another boost came with the project’s proximity to federal agencies involved in renewable energy when Wood announced that she would gladly serve on the GGP’s board.

While the GGP continues to work towards a downtown showpiece highlighting possible uses for geothermal energy, broader and farther-reaching uses for those resources appear to be in the works as NREL representatives have made commitments to helping the town explore all avenues towards expanding existing geothermal systems.

“We’ll be back,” said Lund, “and we’re going to look at all possibilities. We’re just at the first step.”

jim@pagosasun.com