Town, county fund power plant test


Staff Writer

Sixty-five thousand, five hundred dollars.

That’s how much money the town of Pagosa Springs was asked to invest in feasibility research for a geothermal electric power plant proposed by Jerry Smith and Kirsten Skeehan, of Pagosa Verde, and after a lengthy closed-door discussion last week with town attorney Bob Cole, the town council agreed.

Commissioner Michael Whiting was on hand to confirm the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners had already agreed, two days earlier, to kick in an equal amount for the project. Whiting argued that under normal circumstances he felt it would be highly inappropriate for a local government entity to commit taxpayer money to a high risk capital investment in a private venture such as this. However, he said, for a number of reasons he supports this project.

Both local government entities agreed to invest in the project following a public meeting conducted by Pagosa Verde on Oct. 14 at the county Extension Building. The point of the meeting was to field questions and comments from concerned citizens, and the venue was chosen specifically to accommodate a large crowd.

Surprisingly, no one showed up.

To be more precise, there was no large crowd of outraged citizens complaining about the idea of having a power plant just south of Reservoir Hill. In fact, the only people in the audience were those already interested in the idea — Whiting was there, along with town councilors David Schanzenbaker and Don Volger, town manager David Mitchem, Mary Jo Coulehan from the Chamber of Commerce, and local ranchers Don and Fern Shahan.

After the meeting, Smith expressed disappointment at the turnout, perhaps not realizing the implications. There are two possible reasons nobody showed up.

One possibility is there is no opposition to the idea. Perhaps the citizens of Pagosa Country realize that a locally controlled power plant run off of geothermal energy will be good for the local economy and the environment, creating high-tech jobs and protecting the community if anything should ever happen to the national power grid.

At one point last summer, town clerk April Hessman explained to SUN staff that whenever the words “Wal-Mart” or “Reservoir Hill” appeared on a meeting agenda, she knew she would need to move the meeting to the Ross Aragon Community Center because the council chamber at Town Hall is not large enough to hold the crowds of angry protestors that were guaranteed to arrive.

Conversely, the lack of a crowd at last Monday’s meeting might have indicated either support or indifference to the Pagosa Verde concept.

The other possibility is that no one understands the risks involved. The Monday meeting was designed to explain the risks, and to show why it would be acceptable for the town and county to take those risks.

Ed Morlan from Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado joined Skeehan to explain the financial risk. The town and county were asked to contribute $60,000 each to help pay for a series of shallow, slim-bore wells to help pinpoint the best location for a deeper test well. This is a high-risk capital investment because, if these wells come up dry, the town and county are out $60,000 each.

While the focus of the project is on generating electricity, part of mitigating the financial risk is finding alternative uses for the geothermal resource if it proves to be warm instead of hot.

Sally High — a local social studies teacher who is also on the board of the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership and part owner of Pagosa Verde along with Smith, her husband — then explained why the town and county were being asked to contribute an additional $5,500 each.

The money, she said, will be used as matching funds for a Community Development Block Grant application. The CDBG will be used to study the economic feasibility of using the geothermal heat for other projects such as agriculture or aquaculture, similar to what the GGP has proposed, but on a larger, industrial scale.

Morlan explained these other industries would create more jobs and have a bigger impact on the local economy than a power plant, and could be implemented whether the power plant is developed or not. If the water isn’t hot enough to generate power, it could still be used to heat a building or greenhouse. If it is hot enough for power generation, the cascaded heat can be captured for other industries after it comes out of the power plant and before it is injected into the ground.

Dr. Roy Mink, the former director of geothermal technologies for the Department of Energy, was on hand to outline the scientific research that has taken place so far and to explain why said research lowers the financial risk.

Mink described the work by the Colorado School of Mines over the last two summers, the results of which give strong indication of the presence of a usable — in other words, large and hot — geothermal aquifer located south of Reservoir Hill near where Mill Creek crosses under U.S. 84.

While the town and county seemed mainly concerned with the financial risk, since they are the ones being asked to invest money in the project, there are other risks associated with the project.

For example, what if punching the holes in the ground has a negative effect on the mother spring or the various geothermal wells that already exist in town? The local economy depends on tourism, and many tourists come here to soak in the hot springs. Any threat to those amenities should be take very seriously, but no one from the lodger’s association or the spas attended the meeting to raise those concerns.

Mink, however, addressed those questions. He described how a chemical analysis of the water from the mother spring, when compared to water from various other sites around the county, and the Mill Creek sites in particular, indicate separate and unrelated aquifers.

In addition, Mink described the well drilling process and the safety procedures used to ensure that other wells will not be affected. He also mentioned the heat and pressure sensors that were recently installed on all of the existing geothermal wells in the downtown area, which will be constantly monitored during the drilling process to make sure there are no adverse effects.

The third type of risk the project poses is environmental, and project designer Dan Hand was at the Oct. 14 meeting to explain the power plant and how it would work.

Since the resource is expected to produce relatively low temperatures — closer to 200 degrees instead of the 300 plus degrees required by conventional geothermal power plants — the Pagosa Verde plant will use a binary system. Hand described how hot water from a deep production well will be pumped to the surface, run through a heat exchanger and injected back into the aquifer.

Hand explained one aspect of the environmental risk would be if the power plant depleted the geothermal resource. There is plenty of heat down there, but the amount of water for transferring the heat is finite. Injecting the water back into the aquifer will make sure the resource endures.

Since the water isn’t hot enough to produce steam and spin a turbine, it will be used to transfer heat to another substance. This other substance will have a lower boiling point, which will allow it to be converted into steam by the geothermal heat, and this steam will be used to generate electricity.

This other substance will be some type of refrigerant, Hand explained, similar to what is used in the air conditioner of a car. It will be non-toxic and environmentally friendly, and the two systems will be completely contained, eliminating any chance of the refrigerant leaking into the geothermal aquifer.

In the unlikely event of a refrigerant spill, the boiling point of the liquid is low enough that it will evaporate as soon as it is exposed to the air, so there is no chance it will contaminate Mill Creek. In addition, today’s refrigerants no longer contain chlorine, so a leak would not deplete the ozone layer.

Another environmental concern involves noise pollution. Hand explained the refrigerant would need to be cooled enough to turn it back into a liquid before it goes through the heat exchanger again. The decision was made to use air instead of water for the cooling system to alleviate water conservation concerns. However, an air-cooled system will generate quite a bit more noise.

Smith explained how many decibels the plant would produce, claiming it would be comparable to the noise produced by trucks travelling along U.S. 84 and 160. In addition, it will be a higher frequency sound, which tends to travel less and is easier to deflect than lower frequency noise.

Greg Munro, the CEO of La Plata Electric Association, Inc., has formally expressed support for the project and an interest in purchasing power from the plant if it is successful.