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2012: ‘Year of Geothermal’

If research proves what some scientists, researchers and stakeholders suspect, 2012 could be known locally as the “Year of Geothermal.”

On Monday, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon invited SUN staff into his office to discuss several projects that suggest the town could be on the threshold of significantly expanding the use of its geothermal resources, potentially putting Pagosa Springs on the map as a leader in green energy production and self-sustainability.

Along with local entrepreneur Jerry Smith, Aragon explained that several projects were ready to move forward in 2012, potentially making the next year pivotal in the town’s pursuit to showcase its geothermal resources.

Long a pet project of the mayor’s, a geothermal greenhouse may soon be a feature in the core downtown area. With preliminary engineering completed on the project, Aragon indicated that the first of three greenhouses could be installed as soon as early summer.

“A lot of people might think we’ve drifted off target, but we haven’t,” Aragon said. “We’re right on target.”

First proposed by Aragon over five years ago, the notion of geothermally-heated greenhouses in the downtown area began to take on momentum in early 2009, when a group of interested citizens and local officials formed the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) with the intention of making the mayor’s dream a reality.

To be located at the west end of Centennial Park, the project will ultimately include three, 51-foot growing domes, each with a specific purpose.

The first to be installed will be used for education, with local K-12 students, as well as college students, studying permaculture practices and geothermal potential. Through their work and research, those students will determine which crops do well in geothermally-heated greenhouses, with the results of that research determining what would be grown in the second dome, used for commercial production.

A proposed third dome would be available to local residents to be used as a community garden. Although a smaller, 30-foot dome had also been proposed to provide a place for visitors to learn about the greenhouse complex (and provide demonstrations of what was being grown in the domes), plans for that structure appear to be shelved for the moment.

In fact, Aragon conceded that initial plans to install all the greenhouses at once may have been too ambitious and that the GGP is proceeding with a phased approach to the project.

“In retrospect, we may have tried to bite off more than we could chew. I think that once we get this first greenhouse up and running, the momentum will be there to add in the other domes and complete the project,” Aragon said.

In fact, the project stumbled in its pursuit of funding, largely due handing fiscal agency over to the Southwest Land Alliance (SLA).

With a 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax status, the SLA agreed to stand in as fiscal agent for the GGP while the project sought grant funding from various private, state and federal sources. However, after several grant applications were denied (with the second-party fiscal agency arrangement often cited as a reason for rejection), the GGP determined that it needed to pursue its own 501(c)(3) status.

According to Aragon, the GGP’s application for nonprofit tax status is in progress and that several grant applications in process could be determined by that status.

Aragon added that he has been soliciting corporate sponsorship for domes.

Nevertheless, despite some setbacks that required the GGP to pare down its ambitions, Aragon expressed confidence that the first greenhouse would be breaking ground next year.

“I’m almost one-hundred percent positive that we’ll be moving on that by early summer,” Aragon said.

Smith stated that the greenhouses were just one part of several projects that will (if successful) potentially change how Pagosa Springs uses the geothermal waters that bubble up from the ground.

One project, approved earlier this year by the Pagosa Springs Town Council and the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, is a study that monitors the town’s geothermal wells in order to gather real-time data, measuring the extent of the geothermal aquifer’s behavior as well as the extent of available resources.

To be conducted by 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, the project would test the hypothesis that (as Huttrer and other geothermal experts proposed in a study released last October) “ ... appears as if the geothermal resource is currently underutilized.”

Smith said, “Gerry’s study is there to specifically protect current geothermal users while, at the same time, testing to better utilize the resource.”

With meters installed on many geothermal wells throughout the area, data collected will measure moment-to-moment flows and temperatures. In a second phase of the study, Pagosa Springs Well No. 3 will be opened up (several times) to test the effects of uninhibited flows on the aquifer’s pressure and temperatures.

That second phase has been timed to coincide with low use of geothermal wells to minimize potential effects on well users.

A third phase would drill to various depths and then reinject the pumped water back into the aquifer in order to test the effect of cooled water on the reservoir.

If the tests confirm the postulate of underutilized resources, the implications could be great economic news for the area. Last October’s report recommended two uses — geothermally heated greenhouses and aquaculture applications (i.e. fish farms) — as well as large-scale expansion of the town’s current geothermal heating system.

Another project (as reported in the Nov. 3 edition of The SUN) will be conducted next May, complementing Huttrer’s research.

At that time, Dr. Terry Young (head of the Geophysics Department at the Colorado School of Mines), Dr. Michael Batzle and Dr. André Revil (both professors of geophysics at Mines) will converge on Pagosa Country with dozens of graduate students, researching numerous characteristics of the aquifer.

That research would be the result of the two primary studies: deep seismic profiles made of a portion of the aquifer and passive, “geoelectrical methods” of data collection — “including self-potential, electrical resistivity, and induced polarization” — that Revil describes on his website.

The deep seismic profiles are the result of significantly large sound waves directed beneath the earth’s surface, allowing a computer to translate the received echoes as shapes and depths (much in the way that an MRI — Magnetic Resonance Imaging — provides three dimensional images of a patient).

Those sound waves will be generated through the use of so-called “thumper trucks” — 60,000-pound pieces of equipment that generate controlled seismic energy. Through both reflection and refraction, seismic surveys of the subterranean topography will be achieved as seismic waves, travelling through a medium such as water or layers of rocks, recorded by receivers, such as geophones or hydrophones.

Revil’s research, on the other hand, measures electrical signals associated with the movement of water in porous, fractured materials to locate the movement and characteristics of geothermal water.

The upshot of the Mines research is that it has been funded by the school (through various grants), essentially providing Pagosa Springs with more than $180,000 in free work.

Finally, Smith described what he calls “The Power Project” — research that would test temperatures and pressures deeper within the aquifer in order to see if conditions are sufficient for power generation.

The first phase of the project entails shallow drilling into the aquifer to gather gases generated in the geothermal reservoir. Those samples will be sent to the University of New Mexico to determine what kinds of isotopes are generated in the aquifer. If those isotopes are specific to pressures and temperatures that suggest the potential for power generation, a second phase would drill deeper into the aquifer to determine if phase one results were accurate.

Current understanding of the aquifer shows temperatures somewhat below the threshold required for power generation. If research shows that temperatures deep within the aquifer exceed those needed to generate power, “The Power Project” would proceed with the installation of Colorado’s first geothermal power plant.

“This could be a prototype for power generation in the agricultural west,” Smith claimed.

Aside from the obvious economic and environmental benefits, geothermal also has the advantage (over wind and solar) of not being dependent on so-called “peak power” constraints — when the sun is shining or when the wind is blowing.

Smith added that a biomass power plant proposed for the area (tentatively set to go online within the next two years), along with geothermal potentials, would certainly put Pagosa Springs on the map as the nation’s first community that is “off the grid” and entirely self-sustainable as far as fulfilling its own energy needs.

In fact, should all the stars align over Pagosa Springs (with proven underutilization of geothermal resources, sufficient temperatures in the aquifer for generating power and the installation of a biomass power plant), Pagosa Springs could possibly exceed its own energy needs, feeding power back into the grid — and making money.

“We’re doing important stuff here in the town,” Smith said, “not just as far as building the economy, but in our reputation, not just around the state, but throughout the country, in the world.”

If 2012 indeed becomes known as the “Year of Geothermal,” it will not just be a banner year for jobs creation (most exceeding wages above the county average), but the year that Pagosa Springs came to international attention due to its success in diminishing its carbon footprint, as well as realizing complete energy self-sufficiency.

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