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Aspen taps further into geothermal potential

Carolyn Sackariason
csack@aspentimes.com
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado – The City Council has taken a $33,000 step toward putting Aspen on the map as one of the first Colorado cities to have advanced geothermal technology to heat and cool buildings, as well as snowmelt sidewalks.

Last week the council awarded a contract to John Kaufman of Rocky Mountain Water Consulting LLC to prepare a report for the state water court, which has the authority to allow the city to move forward with test drilling and be granted water rights to tap into geothermal heat underneath Aspen, said John Hines, the city’s renewable energy utilities manager.

A state engineer has determined that water rights will likely be granted. But first, the city has to prove that it will not harm the Roaring Fork River in its quest to find geothermal resources underground.

That is what Kaufman’s report will contain, which will then be submitted to the state water court. The court is expected to rule on Aspen’s water rights Jan. 15, Hines said.

If Aspen is granted water rights, a 2,500- to 3,000-foot deep well can be drilled in the Molly Gibson mine shaft, near the base of Smuggler Mountain.

Meanwhile, the city is applying for a federal grant with the Department of Energy to help pay for the entire geothermal project, which is estimated to cost $3.5 million.

The test drilling was scheduled to be done this year but because of the high cost of doing it, city officials decided to hold off and try to get federal money. If the grant is awarded, the city could begin drilling early next year.

“Hopefully, if we get the money we can poke a hole in the ground this spring,” Hines said.

The goal is to find enough geothermal energy to heat 1 million square feet, the equivalent of 10 large hotels. Doing so would cut Aspen’s natural gas needs by about 15 percent, according to city officials.

A geothermal heat district could potentially provide renewable heating and cooling to businesses within a 4-square mile radius of downtown Aspen.

Last year Kaufman conducted a geothermal reconnaissance study, which found that warm ground water associated with hydrothermal deposits of silver, lead and zinc ore beneath Aspen may be present in sufficient quantities for direct heat exchange, or for the application of a groundwater heat pump system.

Hines said he’s tested the temperature of underground water in certain areas and in the winter, it’s 50 degrees.

“There’s definitely something warming up the water,” he said, adding that drilling near mining sites might pay off because anecdotal evidence suggested they might hold geothermal activity. Miners used to work in shifts because it was too hot to spend any extended length of time in the mines, according to Hines.

Under certain assumptions, last year’s study found that up to 167 billion BTUs (British Thermal Units) a year could be achieved through transferring heat from a geothermal reservoir.

City officials say the geothermal project will allow Aspen to be marketed as a “green destination” through the use of renewable energy for heating and cooling as a way to reduce the carbon footprint of hotel and guest services. It’s estimated that more than 13,500 tons of carbon dioxide will be reduced annually as a result of the geothermal project.

The city’s water rights application makes Aspen the first municipality to apply under the new Colorado Geothermal Act.

The geothermal heat would work by taking the steam and hot water produced in the earth’s core and using it to heat a glycol-based solution that circulates through buildings to heat them. Customers would pay according to the thermal units of energy used as the heated liquid goes by their building. Electricity would be needed to move the water.

City officials in the past have said they want to find a well or combination of wells that will produce 5,000 gallons per minute of 140-degree water.


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