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Experts recommend tests of geothermal resource

Geothermal experts and consultants returned to town last week to follow up on an initial visit in September, meeting with local officials and current geothermal stakeholders to advise on how best to proceed exploring the potential of Pagosa Country’s geothermal resources.

The team visited Pagosa Springs last September at the behest of Elaine Wood, former Pagosa Springs resident and a consultant on clean energy projects with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). With her was Gerald Huttrer, president of the Geothermal Management Company, Inc. and consultant for NREL and Dr. John Lund (one of the world’s foremost experts on geothermal utilization), NREL’s principal engineer for the agency’s geothermal program.

September’s visit was essentially a fact-finding tour for the team, resulting in a study released last October, titled, “Observations and Recommendations Regarding Geothermal Use in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.”

That study stated that, “(G)eologic and geochemical indicia suggest that the primary geothermal upflow zone is located south to southwest of the town and that the reservoir subsurface area could be several square miles,” and that, “... it appears as if the geothermal resources is currently underutilized.”

To test that hypothesis, the team recommended, “In order to obtain resource-use information and to protect existing thermal water users, pressure temperature and flow-rate measurements should be made on all currently used wells and springs on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.”

To collect that data, the report recommended the installation of meters, “(O)n all functioning thermal wells and springs so as to obtain fresh base-line data.”

The results of that monitoring would precede a test of the extent of the reservoir. That test would involve pumping out water from the Pagosa Springs well No. 3 and dumping that water into the river while checking meters for pressure and water levels. Another proposed test would be to drill to various depths and then reinject the pumped water back into the aquifer.

The latter tests the effect of cooled water on the reservoir while the former tests the effect of drawing additional water from the aquifer on existing users.

If the tests confirm the postulate of underutilized resources, the implications could be great economic news for the area. The report recommended two uses — geothermally heated greenhouses and aquaculture — along with a large-scale expansion of the town’s current geothermal heating system.

“My goal for Pagosa Springs is to create a sustainable economy in line with the values of the community,” Wood said in an interview yesterday. “The most valuable commodity in Pagosa Springs is clean energy.”

To those ends, the team expressed support for the long-proposed geothermal greenhouses in Centennial Park.

“It’s a show-me site,” said Lund. “People love to go and kick the tires. It really would be a community showcase.”

In fact, the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) has long proposed that the downtown greenhouses would highlight the potential for the area’s geothermal resources and an invitation to greatly expand the use of those resources for both agriculture and aquaculture.

Unfortunately, the GGP has been hampered by a lack of funding from state and federal sources.

“Pagosa Springs has all the ingredients except the money,” Huttrer said, referring to the potential for further uses of geothermal resources.

However, economic constraints could soon be lifted. First of all, the report identified several funding sources, both public and private, that could be pursued as the town determines what it will do with geothermal resources (especially if tests indicate a much larger aquifer than had been previously suspected).

Secondly, as reported in The SUN late last year, the town has been approached by a company seeking to develop a large-scale geothermal utility, proposing to provide geothermal heating for the entire town and in many parts of the county.

It was that second proposal that led the town to issue a Request For Proposal at last Thursday’s mid-month Town Council meeting.

Furthermore, Phil Starks, the town’s geothermal supervisor, proposed retaining Huttrer, Lund and Wood (known collectively as Geothermal Management Company), at a cost of $7,000, to consult on the terms of the RFP.

“As far as I’m concerned, I can’t do this without them,” Starks said. “When you’re talking about $7,000 to evaluate a $15 million project in the first phase, I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Council approved the expenditure and the employment of Geothermal Management Company with a unanimous vote.

While funding and testing remain obstacles towards further use of the town’s geothermal resources, council members and county commissioners alike have expressed a desire to get the ball rolling.

“Rising energy costs and our need for a more stable long term local economy have created both an opportunity and an obligation to do things differently,” said County Commissioner Michael Whiting, a longtime member of the GGP. “It’s time for us to pause to find out how much hot water we have and how much we can use without impacting existing uses. We know just slightly more about our most valuable resource than we did 100 years ago. There are many businesses we can attract who need this kind of energy at a lower cost. But first we will need to know what we have. That is our next step toward meaningful business and job creation in the long run.”

Wood added that funding, at least for the initial test phase, could be forthcoming in the near future, referring to interest expressed by the Governor’s Energy Office.

“They’re very excited to help fund a project to facilitate economic development in the community and the area,” Wood said.

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