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A dome this summer - but, geothermal?

After years of planning, missteps and refused appeals for state and federal funding, it appears that the Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership (GGP) could proceed with construction of the first of three proposed grow domes next summer at a designated site on the west end of Centennial Park.

Curiously enough, plans presented last week during a GGP meeting indicated that the first dome might not be heated with geothermal water, raising the question: What’s the point?

In fact, it was a question raised by SUN staff following a presentation by Mike Davis (of Davis Engineering), local entrepreneur Jerry Smith and Udgar Parsons (of Growing Spaces) regarding the “first phase” of construction, slated for construction this summer.

Davis began the presentation with a revised site plan (slightly changed from one presented in 2009) that, as Davis said, puts the project, “In a position where it can be built in phases.”

Describing for the group various means by which utilities could be tied into the substructure of the first dome, Davis emphasized that his plans (drawn up at no expense to the GGP) would accommodate the need to have the first dome completed by summer 2012.

“We’ll have the entire 1.8 acres completely off the grid,” added Smith as he assured the group that the first phase would be completed this summer.

After Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon thanked Davis for his work, Davis continued by saying, “Phase one is a bare bones project.”

By that, Davis meant that the first dome would not be heated by geothermal water, even though runoff from the area’s aquifer dumps into the river mere yards from where the proposed site would be located. Although Davis said that heating from geothermal water could be added into the project at a later time, the design presented at last Wednesday’s meeting integrated a kind of ground-source heat pump developed by Growing Spaces.

That system, called a “climate battery” by Parsons, involves a series of water pipes, buried at various levels beneath the greenhouse, using ambient temperatures of the earth to warm and cool the structure.

“It would allow you to grow cool weather crops in the winter,” Parsons explained to the group, “but it would not allow you to grow tropical crops as you would with geothermal heating.”

No questions were asked following the presentation of the project.

It was at that point SUN staff pointed out that “geothermal” was the first word contained in the name of the organization (GGP) and that it seemed strange that the design presented had not integrated the one element that had defined the project from the beginning.

Again, no follow-up questions were asked by GGP board members and the discussion moved onto matters of fund-raising for the project.

Only Rich Lindblad (Executive Director for the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation and not a GGP board member) approached SUN staff, following the meeting to say, “I agree, it’s essential that geothermal is part of this project.”

The next day, Pagosa Springs Mayor Ross Aragon (who chaired the GGP meeting) stopped in The SUN offices to tell staff that comments made at the previous night’s meeting were, “Right on target. There’s no way that this (the geothermal greenhouse) is moving forward unless geothermal is part of the project. It’s what I’ve always stood for.”

However, it wasn’t until Tuesday that members of the GGP board clarified their stance on the project and then, only after SUN staff pressed them on comments that staff made during the meeting.

On Tuesday morning, Archuleta County Commissioner and GGP board member (as well as GGP cofounder) Michael Whiting told SUN staff, “Although the GGP Committee was not involved or consulted in the new draft design that Mike (Davis) and Jerry (Smith) introduced, Mike’s draft site design does seem to move us forward in several ways. But, geothermal is the heart of the project. To now rush Mike to a greenhouse design that sidelines geothermal, just to get a shovel in the ground a little sooner, doesn’t make sense. I think it would be a mistake. All of our fantastic local, state, national support is based on the uniqueness of first using renewable geothermal energy to better educate our kids and grow local food, in a single project. We should make sure we stick to that.”

After soliciting a comment from GGP board member Kathy Keyes, Keyes responded by e-mail to say, in part, “This project is named The Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership. Of course domes will be geothermally heated. The meeting you attended was just one in the long string of conversations leading to best possible project for this community. The presentation was not a final approval of a plan, but the first iteration of the revised effort to get one dome up this summer.”

Later Tuesday, Smith sent a long e-mail to SUN staff explaining the presentation he had given along with Davis and Parsons. In the e-mail, Smith described a design process intended to minimize costs while meeting a summer 2012 deadline for completing the first dome.

“We felt, apparently wrongly,” Smith wrote, “that it was understood that all precautions and planning required to include whatever type of geothermal sourcing desired were included in the planning. We left a line item in the budget for interior planning. Those who decide on the specific use of the first dome, probably education planners, will have to provide input for their preference for heated water, geothermal fluid, heat exchange, tank heating and so-forth. Any of these can be accommodated by the existing plan. We hadn’t the time, nor did we feel we’d been given the mission, to perfect the geothermal engineering during the two week (design) period.

“As you might imagine, Udgar (Parsons) and I both have sufficient background and imagination to design several different ways to utilize geothermal assets within the 51’ dome. However, the group at large needs to provide some direction regarding this. Raised beds with geothermal heated water piped from the city’s heat exchanger are one possibility. The climate battery discussed by Udgar is a geoexchange system. Access to town geothermal fluids prior to passing through the town’s heat exchanger and then passed through a heat exchange system within the green house is another alternative. Any of these and many other variations of geothermal application to year-round growing are enabled by the basic engineering as demonstrated by the revised plan.”

The greenhouse’s use of water before or after being passed through the town’s heat exchanger was not presented as an option at last week’s meeting, however. In fact, only Parson’s so-called “climate battery” was discussed in the design and Davis was clear that, while future phases of the project could take advantage of the heat potential of geothermal water, the first phase of the project had not been designed to employ that water and was designed only to accommodate adding heat from geothermal water if, at a later date, the purpose of that greenhouse changed.

The purpose of that first phase was clearly articulated during last week’s meeting: To get the structure built by summer and to meet educational needs of the school district and area college students.

“I was quite surprised and chagrined that some got the impression that we’d left geothermal use out of the design. Quite the opposite,” Smith concluded in his e-mail.

Nonetheless, both presenters and GGP board members remained silent at last week’s meeting when asked by SUN staff where the geothermal was in the design presented at that meeting. Furthermore, the issue of no geothermal heating integrated into that design was not addressed until SUN staff asked follow-up questions on Tuesday.

Despite Keyes’ assertion that, “The presentation was not a final approval of a plan, but the first iteration of the revised effort to get one dome up this summer,” that presentation was not portrayed as a preliminary concept, but rather as the best option for putting a dome greenhouse up by this summer.

In fact, had the proposed design been positioned as merely preliminary, not one person on the GGP board objected to the fact that heating by geothermal water was noticeably absent in the presentation.

Thus, the question remains: Why consider the construction of a greenhouse that excludes the one quality that has defined the project for almost three years — geothermal?

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