Colorado governor advances statewide efforts to harness ‘the heat beneath our feet’

Colorado has long drawn on its high-altitude sunshine and wintry winds for energy. Now Gov. Jared Polis (D) is determined to tap into another renewable resource: one simmering under the Centennial State’s surface.

“The low-cost workhorses of the clean energy economy will always be solar and wind energy, especially in places like Colorado that have great wind and great sun,” Polis told The Hill in a Zoom interview this week.

But as states strive to cut down on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, they are left with an incomplete solution to the energy transition puzzle and need to find a way to “provide that reliable, 24/7 piece,” the governor noted.

For Polis, that missing piece could be geothermal energy: an underground renewable resource literally defined as “heat within the Earth,” per the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

To that end, the governor on Friday announced the award of $7.7 million to 35 different projects through the state’s new Geothermal Energy Grant Program — which aims to advance the deployment of this zero-emissions resource across Colorado.

“We’re really trying to help the state play a role in innovating and catalyzing these investments in geothermal energy to tap the heat beneath our feet,” Polis said ahead of the announcement.

Of the total $7.7 million, the program will award $3.57 million to fund studies and buildouts of thermal energy networks — in which multiple buildings are connected underground to one system.

Another $3.22 million will go toward geothermal electricity exploration, drilling and testing projects, which represent the potential development of Colorado’s first 35 megawatts of such electricity. The remaining $947,000 will support single-structure heat pump installations.

About 48 percent of the total funds will benefit low-income communities and those disproportionately impacted by environmental exposures, according to a statement from the governor’s office. The grant recipients, meanwhile, are expected to invest more than $100 million into their projects, the statement added. A second grant stage will open later this year, bringing the total project awards to $12 million.

The Geothermal Energy Grant Program, housed within the governor’s Colorado Energy Office, was created through a 2022 bill that focused on catalyzing the use of the state’s geothermal resources.

“The beautiful things about geothermal is it produces for decades — 30, 50, 80 years — once they’re built,” Polis said. “The costs are largely upfront, minimal maintenance over time, and it’s really a matter of getting over the hump of those capital investments.”

The Colorado Energy Office also recently opened its first application cycle for a Geothermal Electricity Tax Credit Offering program, an initiative established through another 2022 bill that allocated $35 million through 2032 to geothermal installation incentives.

There are three main pathways for utilizing geothermal: direct use and district heating systems from hot springs, geothermal power plants, and geothermal heat pumps, according to the EIA.

Geothermal energy is largely a U.S. West resource, as the resources in this region tend to sit closer to the Earth’s surface — accessible via geysers, hot springs, volcanoes or fumaroles, which are holes that emit volcan gases, per the EIA.

Nationwide, California generates the most electricity from geothermal energy, particularly from The Geysers dry steam reservoir in Northern California.

As of 2022, California was responsible for 69.5 percent of U.S. geothermal electricity generation, followed by Nevada at 24.2 percent and Utah at 2.7 percent, according to the EIA. Geothermal makes up a 5.8 percent, 9.6 percent and 1.2 percent share of power production in each of these states, respectively.

While Colorado is not yet a major producer, the EIA stressed that “the state has significant geothermal energy potential” due to both its hot springs and recent legislative advances. Today, geothermal is being used for heating and cooling buildings, rather than for utility-scale purposes.

Polis acknowledged these circumstances, noting that countries like New Zealand and Costa Rica already include geothermal electricity as a major part of their power grid and that several other states are ahead of Colorado, which currently has “zero percent.”

“Yet the West in general, and Colorado specifically, you have some of the best geothermal, geophysical potential in terms of the high level of heat beneath our feet,” he said.

Refuting the idea that Colorado is late to the game, Polis credited certain neighbors as “implementing early in the game.” And while Colorado may only be starting to explore the power potential of geothermal, he stressed that it is already used statewide for heating and cooling.

“We have, for instance, Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, which is the first university in the country that’s 100 percent geothermal heated and cooled,” he said.

Polis has for years been promoting the use of geothermal as a possible source of electricity — focusing on the sector during his 2022-2023 tenure as chair of the Western Governors’ Association.

The initiative he launched during that time, called The Heat Beneath Our Feet, evaluated the regional potential of geothermal technologies across the West. At the end of his term last June, Polis released a final progress report that recommended an increase in federal funding for data collection, streamlined permitting processes and tax incentives for oil and gas drillers interested in transitioning to geothermal.

The projects announced as grant recipients Friday include geothermal heating and cooling plans at fire stations, university campuses, a recreation center, a science and technology hub and mixed-use residential developments.

“Colorado can be cold in winter and hot in summer, so being able to have zero bills around heating and cooling is a big deal,” Polis said.

Projects in rural communities will focus on exploring how thermal energy networks can strengthen community resilience, support affordable housing growth, enhance snowmelt systems, and electrify a regional airport, per the governor’s office.

When it comes to electricity production, Polis stressed that geothermal would not be competing with solar or wind. Rather, it would be contending with options such as battery storage, hydrogen, nuclear or hydropower — a resource that is minimal in Colorado.

“In that space, we absolutely feel it’s competitive,” he said. “It’s about the cost up front and then amortizing those costs over the many decades that it’ll continue to produce.”

One grant recipient, the University of Colorado Boulder, will receive $675,000 for two different projects. The first will explore the feasibility of developing a campus-wide, closed-loop electricity network that could leverage “deep geothermal heat.”

This effort will begin with a detailed analysis of the geology, followed by possible tests of bores, explained Brian Lindoerfer, associate vice chancellor for facilities management at the university

“It’ll be six to eight months of study before we would ever put a drill bit into the ground to really see what we have overall,” added Mike Turman, director of design and construction at the university.

The second study, meanwhile, will focus on mapping out how a geothermal exchange system — also known as a ground-source heat pump — could heat and cool a specific residential area on campus, Lindoerfer explained.

Chris Ewing, vice chancellor for infrastructure and sustainability at the university, characterized the studies as a “first step towards confirming what potential opportunities might be ahead.”

“These two studies will really help us evaluate what options we have for our next phases in the future, which would include implementation,” Ewing said.

Another project benefiting from the grants is the southeastern city of Pueblo, which will receive $270,000 to install ground-source heat pumps at three new, net-zero fire stations.

That award represents about 36 percent of the investment necessary in deploying the geothermal systems at these stations, according to Andrew Hayes, director of public works for the city.

The buildings will be sited in communities where residents are largely Black, Indigenous or other people of color, per the governor’s office. The project is also expected to save taxpayers money — generating more than $28,000 in energy cost savings each year.

While geothermal will be just one component of the net-zero structure of the buildings, Hayes stressed that it will replace the need to purchase natural gas. He also expressed his hopes that Pueblo’s progress with this project would inspire others to adopt similar strategies.

“The more demonstrated use of this technology that’s out there, the more confidence it will inspire in private development or in other public developments,” Hayes said.

As the geothermal industry starts to get off the ground in Colorado, there has been some pushback from those opposed to having such projects in their backyards or concerned with possible environmental risks associated with the requisite drilling.

Polis countered those qualms, however, with the notion that the footprint and surface impact of geothermal is “very favorable” in comparison to large fields of solar or wind.

He also discussed the potential to install geothermal technologies in former oil and gas drilling areas, where professional skills would be applicable to former workers from those sectors.

“It’s a low cost, renewable, reliable, 24/7 form of energy that we feel will increasingly be part of that clean energy grid in the West,” Polis said.

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