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Colorado's geothermal potential will soon be tested in a small town

“It's nice that they picked Pierce,” said the town's mayor. However, residents want more details on how the experimental technology will change their homes.
Town of Pierce Town Hall
Posted at 11:21 AM, Jul 02, 2024

PIERCE, Colo. — Across Colorado, sprawling solar energy farms and towering wind power turbines may soon make way for a newer, more experimental form of green energy: geothermal power.

Geothermal energy is generated by tapping into hot water trapped in rock deep below the Earth’s surface.

Many different technologies and approaches are being tested to see what will be most effective in Colorado. The state's Energy Office plans to give out $7.7 million in grants to companies and institutions hoping to study and test geothermal technologies.



Colorado governor, state lawmakers push for geothermal energy

Meghan Lopez - Denver7
6:28 PM, Aug 03, 2022

Colorado Governor Jared Polis calls it “the heat beneath our feet,” and sees geothermal as so promising that he named it an initiative for the Western Governors’ Association last year. Colorado is one of five Western states holding 95% of the United States’ geothermal potential.

When announcing the new grants, Polis said, “Nation-leading efforts to develop Colorado’s geothermal energy resources is essential to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while creating stable, good-paying jobs in just transition communities and ensuring affordable and reliable access to clean energy for all Coloradans.”

But there’s a lot to figure out.

Denver7 talked with two companies — Gradient Geothermal and Geothermal Technologies — which will both receive state grants to test different methods in the same small town in northeastern Colorado.

Town of Pierce
The Town of Pierce stretches across just one square mile. The Town Hall and Market are directly across from each other on Main Avenue.

The Town of Pierce is just one square mile wide. Roughly 1,000 people live there, and Pierce Mayor Cathy Ortiz knows them all. That’s because when she isn’t working with the local government at Pierce’s Town Hall, she’s chatting with locals at the market across the street, where she’s a manager.

“It's a very small community, and a lot of them feel like family,” Ortiz said.

She said the market is where she stays up-to-date on the town’s desires.

“This is where I talk to everybody. I'm here every day, and I love it,” she said.

But the news of geothermal technology coming to town still hasn't gotten around.

"Probably nobody knows about it,” she said. Even as mayor, Ortiz was only recently approached by a company representative informing her of their plans.

Cathy Ortiz Pierce
Cathy Ortiz is both the Mayor of the Town of Pierce and the manager of the main market where she talks with residents about the changes they want to see. Next to snacks on the shelves, Ortiz shows off photographs from Pierce's past.

“It's nice that they picked Pierce,” she said. Currently, agriculture and oil and gas operations are the biggest industries in town. But there aren’t many revenue opportunities, and she hopes geothermal energy will create new jobs for residents who otherwise drive out of Pierce for work.

“We would like to see that go forward, and think it would be great for the town,” she said. But she hopes people in Pierce will be kept in the loop when it comes to the timeline and details for these projects.

“I'd like to see more information and see where they're going with it,” she said.

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Geothermal Technologies CEO Gary McDaniel said his projects are aimed at studying the geothermal potential of northern Colorado’s geological formation known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin and then building a geothermal power plant in the empty fields near Pierce.

“This technology is going to be a game changer in the renewable energy field and making clean power,” he said.

McDaniel is a chemical engineer and calls himself a “serial CEO” in “clean tech.” He’s run companies focused on solar, hydrogen fuel cells and clean air catalytic converters. But he said geothermal caught his attention.

"Clean energy needs baseload power... that's available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. "Solar only works when the Sun shines, and wind only works when the wind blows."

But geothermal energy is hot and ready all the time.

McDaniel also said a geothermal power plant, like the one his company has planned for Pierce, has a small environmental impact. After the initial disturbance caused while his company drills a well, he said there would be “no air emissions, no water emissions, no noise.”

Geothermal technology may also provide a second life for old, depleted oil and gas wells spread throughout Pierce, something Ortiz is eager to see. She and her son live right next to a no longer operational well.

“I think it's great that they would have a use instead of just being capped off or nothing done with them,” she said.

Geothermal resources in the United States

Gradient Geothermal is the company receiving a state grant to try out this reuse of old wells.

“We see a huge opportunity in Colorado with oil and gas wells being adjacent to communities,” said Gradient Geothermal’s COO Johanna Ostrum.

Ostrum previously worked as an oil and gas engineer. Now, she sees geothermal energy as a way for the state’s oil and gas industry to transition into a decarbonized future.

“Drilling for, finding and producing geothermal energy is really the same skills, except for you’re going after hot water instead of oil or gas in the ground,” she said.

Gradient Geothermal is interested in Pierce because “wells that are no longer economic from an oil and gas perspective, because they just don't make any oil or gas, they're perfect for our application,” Ostrum said.

“These wells produce a lot of hot water with very little oil, and that hot water is really perfect for geothermal power generation,” she said.

Gradient Geothermal in Nevada
Gradient Geothermal has already tested its technology in Nevada. Now, it hopes to expand by proving its effectiveness in Colorado.

The company’s study will “determine if the wells can produce power, and then what sort of benefits we can provide to the community,” she said.

Since these wells are “in and amongst the town, there's an ability to use the heat after power generation to potentially help heat the school nearby, heat sidewalks,” Ostrum said.

She said, “The way we harvest geothermal energy is a lot like using an air conditioner in reverse. We capture thermal energy produced from hot water.” The hot water heats a refrigerant, which turns into vapor and spins a turbine. The spinning generates electricity.

"It's entirely closed loop. There's no emissions from it,” she said.


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The main difference between the projects proposed by Gradient Geothermal and Geothermal Technologies is how that hot water is accessed. Gradient will use existing wellbores, while Geothermal will drill its own.

Both said their footprint in the area will be small, with the potential to scale up the power and heat available as their technologies are proven.

For Pierce locals like Ortiz, the experimental plans are exciting, as long as the needs of residents are kept in mind.

“I love the town, and I care for the people, and I want to see the best for the town,” she said.

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