DENVER — Among the high-tech buildings and solar panel car ports on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) campus in Golden, there’s an empty field. It doesn’t look like much but beneath it, there’s a world of potential. It is the home of the lab’s geothermal system.
Over the years, Colorado has taken significant steps to increase its solar and wind renewable energy stock. However, geothermal energy has largely remained an untapped source in the state.
“We call it the invisible renewable,” said Amanda Kolker, a geothermal program manager with NREL. “Geothermal is referring to heat extraction from the Earth and also heat exchange in the Earth.”
Geothermal energy comes from drilling into the Earth to access superheated water that can be turned into energy. The heat from the water can be used to heat buildings and homes or converted into energy. It can also be used to build a heat sink that can cool homes and buildings.
Like much of the western United States, Colorado’s geology is favorable to geothermal — our hot springs are proof.
“The western United States has geology that is favorable to the formation of hot water or hot rock at depths that are shallower than other parts,” Kolker said.
This means the energy is closer to the surface and easier to tap. Some places like Pagosa Springs and a neighborhood in Arvada have already been using geothermal to heat and cool their communities for years.
Unlike wind turbines and solar panels, which require land on the surface level to work, geothermal has the smallest land footprint of any of the renewables since it takes place underground.
It also works regardless of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing because it depends on the Earth's core for its energy. Despite this, unlike other states like California and Utah, Colorado has not created a geothermal energy production facility.
Part of the reason for the delayed deployment in the state are the costs. Because of that, in the United States, it’s been difficult for geothermal to complete with cheaper fossil fuels.
“It's a longer-term energy source and you do have this big capital expense right up front, and with that capital expense comes some risk because you don't know what your resources are until you drill it,” Kolker said.
While scientists have a good understanding of the surface of the Earth, their understanding of the subsurface is not as good, so it’s hard to tell if drilling in a particular spot will result in a lot or little of energy output.
In Colorado’s case, Kolker said it might be more feasible for the state to create smaller grids that are five- to 10-megawatt plants instead of the much larger 50- to 100-megawatt plants. That will require a change in mindset, though.
Last week, Gov. Jared Polis launched the Heat Beneath Our Feet initiative to examine barriers and opportunities when it comes to geothermal technology. The goal is to encourage western states to expand their use of geothermal energy.
Polis, who serves as the chair of the Western Governors Association, said he believes this could help bring Colorado to 100% renewable energy by 2040.
This year, a bipartisan group of legislators also passed two laws to help in that effort.
“We don't know what exactly it's going to look like 10 years from now. But we know there's extraordinarily promising opportunities. So, let's do what we can now,” said Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, D-Pueblo.
HB22-1381, which is set to launch in the fall, establishes a grant program that local governments, homeowners, and others would be able to access to invest in geothermal.
“We've done great stuff in the past before with solar energy, where we give incentives to homeowners who put solar panels on their house,” Hinrichsen said. “We have the same opportunity to do that with geothermal. It's just an emerging industry that's following sort of the similar path that solar has.”
The second law, SB22-118, offers education for consumers on how geothermal works and creates a business model for geothermal projects in the state.
Hinrichsen said there’s still a long way to go on geothermal in the state and more legislation needed to get it there. Still, he’s excited about the possibilities this renewable energy source means for the state.
“The heating source is going to look different in your home 25 years from now than it does today. And we're in the process of starting that. It's going to be more efficient, it's going to be cleaner, it's going to be better in terms of air quality,” he said.
Kolker supports the incentives and agrees that there may be some other fixes on the regulatory side of things to accelerate geothermal’s use. For now, she’s encouraging people to learn more about the energy source and the potential it has for the state.
“Now is the time where geothermal needs to sort of ramp up its production,” she said.