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Geothermal research gets the go-ahead

Approving the reallocation of $13,000 in funding for the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation to be used for geothermal research, the Pagosa Springs Town Council signaled its support for research that could determine the extent of geothermal resources in the area.

In late February, county commissioner and CDC board member Michael Whiting proposed reallocating $30,000 of CDC money to fund the research. Although the BoCC voted unanimously to reallocate their $15,000 portion of CDC funding to pay for research, the town council rejected reallocating its $15,000 of CDC funding. Council members opposed to allocating CDC funds for the research had cited discomfort with a previously proposed work plan outlining the study.

In fact, council had 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).

Following council’s stated displeasure with the initial work plan, the CDC proposed paying Gerry Huttrer, president of the Geothermal Management Company (GMC) and one of the geothermal energy experts who has visited Pagosa Springs on numerous occasions to scope out area geothermal resources, for additional work in developing a refined, more detailed work plan — one that would hopefully satisfy the needs of the council. In April the CDC board approved spending $2,000 of the town’s $15,000 funding share to pay Huttrer for the additional work.

In early June, Huttrer delivered the revised work plan to the CDC board. That revised plan was accepted with unanimous approval by the board last month.

On Tuesday night, council spent little time discussing the proposed research, apparently satisfied with the work plan Huttrer had developed.

In fact, the majority of conversation prior to the vote indicated that council would approve the work plan and the release of CDC funds for research with only details of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) regarding administration of research funding remaining as the final stipulation for pursuing the study.

Council member Shari Pierce asked Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem why an MOU had not been presented to council. Mitchem responded that the MOU would be drafted after the BoCC approved the revised work plan at its June 21 meeting.

Pierce then pointed out that while one of the well owners was refusing to participate in the research (The Springs Resort), monitoring on the other seven wells would provide sufficient data for the study. However, Pierce said that the town should reconsider funding the study should other well owners also refuse well monitoring.

In the end, council agreed to release their remaining $13,000 in CDC contributions to fund the research contingent on money from various contributors for the study remaining in place and determined that, provided an acceptable MOU (with the town as the fiscal agent for research funding) between the BoCC, CDC, and the Geothermal Advisory group is completed, Aragon would sign final approval for funding.

It took council several months and hours of often contentious dialogue to finally arrive at a decision that would allow the CDC to direct town funding towards 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 Huttrer 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.

With Aragon’s approval of an MOU, metering and monitoring of wells could begin as early as August, with preliminary data released by the end of the summer.

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