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Geothermal study: To fund or not to fund?

Funding for research to determine the extent of geothermal resources in the area gained some baby steps on Monday as the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation decided to pay fees necessary to develop a work plan that, the CDC hopes, will mollify concerns expressed by members of the Pagosa Springs Town Council.

As reported in The SUN last week, the Pagosa Springs Town Council has twice rejected the opportunity to fund the proposed geothermal study despite support for the plan by Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon, two endorsements for the research by the CDC, a unanimous vote supporting funding by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners and funding for the study by the Geothermal Advisory group (comprised of interested local residents and geothermal stakeholders).

Council members opposed to allocating CDC funds for the research have cited discomfort with a proposed work plan outlining the study.

Originally, county commissioner (and CDC board member) Michael Whiting forwarded a motion on Monday that would have diverted $15,000 of CDC funds to pay for the study.

“I would caution you to be careful,” said Pagosa Springs Mayor and CDC board member Ross Aragon. “The town is waiting for the right time and felt that this is not the right time. They need something a little more descriptive.

“The council, in concept, is okay with it (funding the study),” Aragon continued, adding, “There might be a chance of alienating the council if it appears you’re sidestepping that (council’s decision not to fund the study).”

What followed was nearly an hour of discussion, weighing options that would ostensibly put the research proposal on a fast track while not offending town council.

Agreeing with the mayor, Whiting conceded that his motion might have been premature and withdrew his suggestion.

Board member Morgan Murri offered an alternative — providing no more than $2,000 of CDC money to pay for the development of a work plan (study proposal) that would satisfy a sedulous town council.

At issue is a proposed study of the geothermal aquifer that feeds local wells and pools. Although monitored since the early 1980s to determine use by geothermal stakeholders, the aquifer has never been the subject of a study that would examine “real time” data — pressures, temperatures and flow rates measured as local wells perform.

The relative mystery of the aquifer’s behavior and size was addressed in 2010 when a team of geothermal experts took a cursory look at local wells last fall.

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 baseline 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 on existing users of drawing additional water from the aquifer.

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 applications (i.e. fish farms) — along with a large-scale expansion of the town’s current geothermal heating system.

Last year, the town’s geothermal supervisor, Phil Starks, alerted council that the town’s current geothermal utility was facing potential systemic failures and would require upgrades that, by some estimates, would cost upwards of $1 million with immediate needs requiring over $300,000.

In late 2010, consultants from Hardin Geothermal proposed taking over the town’s geothermal utility with a scheme that would potentially provide geothermal heating for the entire town. The Hardin representatives stated that their first phase of development would cost over $15 million.

The town nearly handed over its geothermal utility to Hardin Geothermal, but demurred at the last minute, deciding to issue an RFP that would allow other geothermal vendors to bid on developing and running a utility.

In February, council voted to retain Huttrer, Lund and Wood (under the auspices of the Geothermal Management Company) as consultants for that RFP. However, the town issued the RFP prior to input from the GMC and later had to revise it (and extend the deadline) after Starks and Huttrer objected to terms in the initial document.

Furthermore, Wood said she felt that the deadline for the RFP was “ridiculous” and much more time was required to allow a truly competitive process.

The RFP deadline is Friday.

Wood also said she hoped that a geothermal conference hosted by the Governor’s Energy Office (taking place today, with additional meetings scheduled for tomorrow) would help convince town officials to extend the RFP deadline.

“What we need to say,” Wood said regarding town representation at the conference, “is Pagosa is open for business.”

However, until a study has been completed, the town’s geothermal aspirations remain dead in the water, so to speak.

Addressing what a sufficient work plan for research would entail, council member Shari Pierce said, “I would need to know the cost and the outcomes. When the study is done, what will we know that we don’t know now? What would we know if we use the current geothermal data studies? Over the 30 years since the DOE helped us drill the current wells, what studies have been done? If, after looking at the current data, we need additional data what would be the cost of that?

“Over the years there have been attempts at developing geothermal here. What have been the obstacles to that development? Have we overcome those obstacles? If we have, then it makes sense to move forward. If we haven’t, then perhaps we need to work on removing those first.”

Wood agreed that Pierce had legitimate concerns, stating that GMC was prepared to submit a work plan to council that would address those issues.

On Monday, the CDC board voted to approve the funding necessary to complete the work study proposal for research (Aragon abstained from the vote).

With a revised work plan handed in, the town would most likely consider reallocating CDC funds for the first phase of geothermal research at its May 19 mid-month meeting.

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