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As the World Experiences More Extreme Weather, Geothermal may be One Solution

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series about the ongoing conversation on geothermal energy in Chaffee County.

In at least two subsequent installments on geothermal energy in Chaffee County, Ark Valley Voice will discuss more fully the procedural aspects of geothermal energy (e.g., relevant land codes, relationships to regulatory bodies in the State/County, etc.) and the technical aspects (e.g., seismic impacts, groundwater impact, geothermal production elsewhere in the U.S. and world, etc.).

If you are familiar with the conversations taking place regarding geothermal energy in Chaffee County, consider this article as a primer. Readers can email with further questions you would like to ask or further elements of geothermal you would like examined. He will do his best to track down someone or something that may provide an answer.

Organizers for a group called BV Community for a Pristine Mt Princeton (PMP), dressed in hazmat suits, tugged along quite the foreboding float at Buena Vista’s Fourth of July celebration.

The float bore a QR code which led to a petition against the construction of a geothermal facility and signs saying, “Greenhouse gasses (sic)”, “Buena Vista or Ugly Vista” and “Triggers earthquakes.” To make the image more vivid, they had placed a small model of a four-towered electric facility in front of a large photo of picturesque mountains. One recalls, looking at the float, The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ cautionary tale filled with purple-tinged, smog-tainted skies.

To date, the petition has received 423 signatures since it was posted online on July 2. It demands “the Chaffee County Board of Commissioners reject the proposed location of the geothermal power plant on Rodeo Road near county road 323.”

There is, however, as stated by County Commissioner Keith Baker in the Commissioners’ most recent meeting on August 8, nothing to reject. No application for such a facility has been made, and the county cannot say no to something which has not yet been proposed. This statement was reaffirmed in an official press release from later in the week, further explaining the County’s reservation in providing comment.

Geothermal Research is not Geothermal Production

This is not to say that a facility will never be proposed. There is, indeed, geothermal energy potential on the over 3,000 acres of state land surrounding the intersection of Rodeo Road and CR 232, and there is, indeed, research action being taken. The primary agent of such action is Mt. Princeton Geothermal, LLC (MPG), a company formed in 2007 dedicated to researching and harnessing geothermal energy in Chaffee County. They would like to build a geothermal power plant in Chaffee County. As of today, there are no such facilities in Colorado.

So, if not the construction of a power plant, what is happening right now? The short answer: not much, at least in the way of shovels and Hi-Vis vests. There is a significant amount of paperwork and permitting that stands between MPG and the act of putting a drill into the ground.

MPG, after years of geophysical testing at 56 sites across Colorado, believes that, of all the sites they have investigated, the site near Rodeo Road shows the strongest potential for geothermal electricity production. Their data has been gathered in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado School of Mines. The members of MPG have contributed roughly $1 million of personal equity to testing efforts.

“You have to go where the hot water is,” said MPG CEO Hank Held.

The next step, then, would be a test drilling operation to determine the actual heat generated by the water underground. Without a definite understanding of the resource’s temperature gradient (the rate at which temperature increases with depth) and its consistency of output, there is no way a geothermal plant could be built.

Crucially, MPG finds the most promising site is located in Chaffee County on state land. This is within miles of the Lost Creek Ranch subdivision, and hundreds of other residences in the cradle of Mount Princeton. Some residents in this area are ardently opposed to the construction of a power facility near their homes in what resident Jim Williams described at a July 21 PMP informational meeting as, “one of the last unobstructed view corridors in Chaffee County.”

PMP’s protests, presented at parades and board meetings and in town halls as well as in online havens of dissent such as and, have been met with, interestingly, very little response.

High School Math teacher Tom McCracken said the supporters of PMP have not actually met with MPG, though they would be open to it. Held was at the July 21 meeting.

The County Commissioners refrained for weeks from responding to public comments made in opposition to geothermal, with their ultimate conclusion presented on August 8 being, in effect, a statement of no statement. Until a permit is in front of them for approval, it is important that representatives of the county do not show bias, the commissioners explained.

Directors at Sangre de Cristo Electric Association (SDCEA) broke their nominal silence on July 31 to tell objectors that the Senate Appropriations Committee had rejected a $1 million earmark request by Senator Michael Bennet for SDCEA to contribute to the test drilling costs. They added that SDCEA’s primary role is as an energy distributor, not an energy generator. Their role would involve transmitting electricity generated by a plant, not constructing the plant itself.

There is a critical element that binds and colors the general policy of nonresponse by the County, SDCEA and the Town of Buena Vista (BV). Representatives from each group sent a letter in April to Sen. Bennet in support of the appropriations request.

The letter sent by BV Mayor Libby Fay, read, for example, “The geothermal assets of this area have been studied for years and they are ready to be proved through the drilling of test wells to determine the viability of this as a business investment.”

These letters prompted PMP to position the county, SDCEA and Buena Vista as active proponents of a geothermal plant. But the fact is, at this time, the three entities are only stated proponents of resource testing. While this technicality is important, it has gone largely without notice.

The unadvertised letters of support from the county, Town of BV and SDCEA also contributed to the notion that geothermal was progressing at a much faster, seemingly more nefarious pace than residents near the prospective test site would like.

A Growing Information Gap

Worries that geothermal development has become a rolling stone of sorts kicked those involved with PMP into gear, prompting appearances at public meetings and the dissemination of warnings about excessive volume, pollutants, aquifer contamination, and other environmental impacts. Worries that, while understandable, are not necessarily addressable in the near future.

The fact that the PMP opposition group has dominated the conversation and gone largely without response has begotten a defining phrase for the geothermal debate: “Information gap.”

Groups on all sides have remarked on a dearth of information in the geothermal sphere—representatives from SDCEA and the county have deployed the term “misinformation”, but little has been done to address this.

SDCEA and MPG have both mentioned the possibility of an informational session, but details are not yet available.

As we’ve seen all summer, the world is getting hotter. The diversification of our energy-production portfolio will be imperative if the state of Colorado is to hit carbon neutrality goals by 2050. It is likely — given Governor Jared Polis’ interest in geothermal energy production — that MPG could become early adopters of geothermal for Colorado, but certainly not the only adopters.

Chaffee County finds itself in the ever-uncomfortable position of trying new things. While geothermal has plenty of precedent around the world, here, it does not. Playing out the line from this point will be difficult, it will be challenging; no doubts there. But, as an attendee at PMP’s July 21 meeting reminded us, this is “a community issue.”  Ark Valley Voice urges us all to treat it as such.

Stay tuned for part II: an overview of the procedural aspects of geothermal energy (e.g., relevant land codes, relationships to regulatory bodies in the State/County, etc.)