Geothermal energy has become a promising source of clean, renewable energy.
Chaffee County has shown potential in geothermal energy resources through hot springs long before Gov. Jared Polis stepped it to the forefront last week in taking the reigns of the Western Governor’s Association.
Hank Held, CEO and president and chief scientist Fred Henderson of Mt. Princeton Geothermal, LLC have spent 15 years uncovering geothermal aquifers in the area and understanding how to generate geothermal electric power.
Ever since he was young, Held says he thought that the geothermal energy that creates hot springs could be put to even greater use, such as the geothermal greenhouses that now sit near the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort.
This, Henderson explains, is an example of commercial direct use of geothermal energy.
Commercial hot water must be regulated by a Division of Water Resources. Many things can be done with this hot water at different temperatures, from private geothermal heat pumps and soil warming to refrigeration and biofuels production.
A Ph.D.-holding exploration geologist for 55 years, Henderson is entirely focused on drilling and pooling a reservoir in the Mount Princeton area to create electricity.
“I think there’s a great energy potential here in Chaffee County,” he says. “I think we could have anywhere from 10 to 100 megawatts in this valley.”
Water up to 300 degrees Fahrenheit could generate 100 megawatts, enough to power about 5,000 homes in the county, Henderson says, possibly even 6,000.
“With that, we could do a lot of things,” Held adds. “But what if we drill down and only get 280 degree temperatures? There’s still a lot of hot water there and a lot of energy. Those are what we would call direct use.”
After studying the thermal gradient around Mount Princeton, Henderson says the area falls within a rift zone that runs from Leadville all the way to northern Mexico. He believes the Rio Grande rift is the heating source of all things geothermal, more so than the volcanic field in the area.
“The current hot springs are not related, in my mind, to anything volcanic or igneous,” he says. “The geochemistry confirms that, in a way. Geochemistry associated with volcanic rocks is similar with minerals … They always carry negative things – mercury and arsenic and that sort of stuff. There’s none of that in these waters. The only thing we have here that’s a concern is fluorine.”
The only concern for water is the monetary cost to clean out the fluorine when needed for personal use; otherwise, the waters are very clean.
Results from preliminary exploration and surveys conducted by the Colorado School of Mines, Boise State University, the Colorado Geological Survey and the Imperial College of London also support the existence of a geothermal reservoir around Mount Princeton.
AMAX Exploration sought out hot water in Chaffee County to use as energy for its mine. In 1975, it leased 34,000 acres in the valley for drilling for hot water for steam plants.
“In those days, you had to have steam, essentially, for your generator to run and produce electricity,” Henderson says. “Today, we have what’s known as binary heat exchanges.”
A binary geothermal power plant pulls water from the reservoir’s production well and passes it through a heat exchanger with organic or binary liquid, typically isobutane or isopentane found in air-conditioning systems.
This causes the binary liquid to flash to organic vapor that powers the turbine and, thus, the generator.
The cooled geothermal water, meanwhile, is sent back down to the reservoir through the injection well.
This creates a closed-loop system that is estimated to reduce emissions by up to 117,532 metric tons, or the equivalent of 25,007 cars.
This kind of binary heat exchange is also used in California and Nevada, which have become the main area in the geothermal industry in this country, Henderson adds.
Held and Henderson have their eyes on some drill sites already – the primary one near the turnoff to Lost Creek Ranch and two more not far from that site.
There are other sites in Chaffee County that they have studied, but these are the three they have done the most work with. The geothermal power plant will sit to the east of the primary drill site, mostly concealed in the trees in the gully.
With the inclusion of the facility, well fields, transmission lines and pipelines, the projected surface disturbance is estimated at about 8.6 acres, with an initial short-term disturbance of about 25 acres. The plant itself would only fill a few of those acres.
“Yes, you’ll see a drill out there to drill all those holes … but then they’ll go away. They won’t be there anymore,” Henderson says.
He says that the production well field for geothermal plants like the one in Steamboat Springs use 2,000-gallon-a-minute wells with pumps that stand at around 6 or 7 feet.
“People can build a box around it; you’ll never hear it or see it,” he says. “The well field will not bother anybody’s view once it’s completed.”
Working with state agencies, Held and Henderson have already put over $1 million into this project.
Much more is needed to drill. Test drilling, which is necessary to evaluate the resource, can cost up to $1 million per well.
Two years ago, Mt. Princeton Geothermal’s total tab amounted to $5 million for exploration and $45,005,988 for confirmation, requiring an equity investment of $9,021,082. Since then, costs have increased with inflation.
“We’ve had and lost several financial backers,” Held says. “We actually have documentation for two or three actual investors for this that have fallen through. And we had a DOE (Department of Energy) grant for $3.6 million that President (Donald) Trump held up and did not fund.”
Many businesses like Sangre de Cristo Electric Association; Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc.; and Xcel Energy are on the fence with backing this project.
Henderson had hoped Sangre de Cristo at least would be encouraging the pursuit of geothermal energy for electricity because of its presence beneath our feet.
“Theoretically, I think we have the heat to produce, and we could sell energy to Sangre de Cristo for the same price that they’re presently paying to Tri-State for electricity,” Held says. “It’d be 100 percent renewable energy.”
However, things may be looking up for geothermal power thanks to public sector interest.
Gov. Polis signed HB22 – 1381 in June. The bill allows the creation of a geothermal energy grant program.
“As the incoming chair of the bipartisan Western Governors Association, I am excited to establish the Heat Beneath Our Feet as my initiative because geothermal energy is an opportunity to save people money, boost local economies, and help us achieve 100% renewable energy in Colorado by 2040,” Polis said in a late-July press release.
“I look forward to making progress towards clean, lower-cost power through the Heat Beneath Our Feet initiative and the strong bipartisan partnership of the WGA that will lead geothermal energy innovation,” he said.
Held says he and Henderson feel very optimistic about this, especially since Polis has also expressed an interest in hydrogen production, which is part of their current business plan.
“There will be things, we think, coming out of that based on conversations we’ve had,” Held says. “We think there’ll be some good feedback coming out of that.”
The project has the local support of Sandy Long, group leader of the Chaffee County Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization with a focus on clean, renewable energy.
Held says that this is “vitally important. It’s one of the things that Pagosa Springs going for it. They don’t have nearly as good a resource as we do with Mount Princeton, but the whole town is behind it. That’s what we need to generate here in Chaffee County.”
Support has also been given by the Colorado State Land Board which has just given the men a 3-year extension on their 3,700-acre exploration lease.
“The land itself is owned by the Colorado State Land Board, held in trust for K-12 education in Colorado,” Held says. “So, any royalties we would pay then go to K-12 education. They have, in fact, asked us to locate any other potential geothermal sites on their land in other counties.”
Depending on the resource, electricity-generating geothermal wells could last from several decades to a century or more, creating long-term jobs such as mechanics and plumbers, and boosting consumer spending in the county.
Held estimates $10.2 million spent locally during construction with $900,000 spent annually on maintenance and operations afterward, as well as increased property tax revenues of about $550,000 annually.
In terms of tourism, there may be no effect or there may be an increase. Held uses the power plant at Mammoth Lakes, Calif., as an example.
While the locals initially opposed the plant due to concerns over impacts on tourism, the project became highly regarded by both community members and visitors.
“Negative impacts on socioeconomics or environmental risks would be minimized by implementing best management practices through conditions of approval for any future exploration, drilling, utilization and reclamation and abandonment, in accordance with Chaffee County Geothermal Development guidelines, Section 1041,” Held states.
Henderson adds that some have raised a concern on fracking and causing earthquakes. Because this is a hydrothermal reservoir, fracking will not be required and earthquakes should not be a problem.
“A lot of times in the fracking issue is if you don’t know there’s a fault and it’s under pressure, like the San Andreas is a pressure fault and it’ll move every now and then, that’s where your earthquakes are,” he says. “But this (rift) is pulling apart. There’s no pressure.”
Pushing down more on faults locked with pressure can trigger an earthquake, he continues. While he has already spoken with seismologists on the issue, Henderson assures that a company will be hired to monitor any possible earthquake activity in the area before and after drilling and during plant operations.
Because of how easily a project like this can be killed by enough people who are against it, Mt. Princeton Geothermal first needs to get the production wells and the plant pre-approved by the county under its 1041 geothermal regulations before investors are willing to put in the money.
Due to inflation, some previous investments have to be rebid, including a drilling permit from Colorado Department of Water Resources; otherwise, Mt. Princeton Geothermal, LLC is still set on the next step to drill.
“We’re pretty much ready to go,” Held says. He believes the project could take only 3 years to complete once started, but more years may be added depending on approval through the county’s 1041 regulations.