There’s no Hot Water!

“It’s an exciting opportunity,” gushed a city of Aspen spokeswoman with no scientific or business expertise. The “opportunity” about which she was excited was the city’s idea to get into the geothermal-energy business.

That was five years ago. Now there’s, well, less excitement. In place of the excitement, we have a $300,000 hole in the ground.

How exactly did our money get out of our pockets and down that hole?

It all started when the city heard rumors that miners in the old days emerged from the mines all hot and sweaty. (You don’t say! A hot and sweaty miner?)

So the city government wished, and therefore believed, that there was free geothermal energy to be had. See how exciting this is?

The city’s first step was to partner with experts in the utilities industry who had lots of specific experience in the production of geothermal energy.

Ha! Now I’m kidding, of course. It did no such thing because this is the gang that thinks it knows everything from running restaurants to producing hydroelectric energy to renting bicycles to real estate investing. Besides, what’s to know? It’s not rocket science; it’s just geothermal-energy generation.

No, instead, the city contracted with an outfit called Dan’s Water Well. Dan’s business is pumping money into the ground and pumping water out of it.

But wait — another exciting thing happened first. The city would get $50,000 in “free money” to pursue its “free energy” in the form of a state grant funded by other taxpayers. Even better, there was talk about getting another $3.5 million in additional “free money” in the form of a federal grant funded by faraway taxpayers. (The federal “free money” never materialized.)

Dan started drilling next to the Roaring Fork River by Herron Park in fall 2011. It was supposed to take him 30 to 45 days and $200,000 but wound up taking nearly two years and $300,000.

The first hole never hit water. It didn’t just fail to find water that was hot; it failed to find any water at all. That was quite an accomplishment, considering that the hole was only 100 feet from the river. Maybe Dan should have drilled horizontally.

The second hole finally did find water. It wasn’t at the 1,000 feet that was supposed to be the maximum for the hole but at 1,500 feet.

The tide went out on whatever excitement remained when the water was only 70 degrees. Even Dan likes his bathwater warmer than that.

The good news, they report, is that the pressure of the water is sufficient that it bubbles right up without the need for much pumping. So the water can be obtained for a cost that is equal to its value: zero. (That’s if you don’t include the $300,000 cost of drilling the well.)

Now the only excitement left and the only energy that is being produced are in the city’s frantic effort to spin this boondoggle as something other than dead in the water.

The spin cycle revolves around conjecture and hope that the water was perhaps warmer — maybe 90 degrees — at the bottom of the hole and that it cooled as it rose to the surface. The city infers from this that its hole isn’t exactly a gold mine but that it could be a silver mine. Or maybe copper. OK, at least tin.

This requires us to ignore three facts. First, the city doesn’t actually know the temperature of the water at 1,500 feet because it hasn’t put a thermometer down there to measure it. It’s possible that it is 90 degrees and it cooled off as it rose through the hole, as the city hopes and conjectures. But it’s also possible that it is 70 degrees — that it was 70 degrees at the bottom of the hole and it stayed 70 degrees when it came up the hole.

Second, even if the water is indeed 90 degrees at the bottom of the hole, that doesn’t represent a geothermal resource. Geologists know that the temperature of Earth’s upper crust typically goes up about 4 to 5 degrees for every 100 meters of depth. So at the bottom of a 1,500-foot (about 460-meter) hole, the temperature should be about 18 to 23 degrees warmer. In short, Dan found, at best, what he would find anywhere that is not geothermally active.

Third, the city itself said back in 2008 that it hoped to find water with a temperature of 140 degrees. (It takes about 200-degree water for the production of electricity, but the city’s hope was that 140-degree water might be useful to heat buildings — provided that a whole new insulated water-circulation system were designed and built to bring it from the hole to the buildings before if cooled off.) The city now says that the conjectured 90-degree water is “on the low end” of what might be useful. I suppose that in a sense 90 is indeed on the low end of 140. The very low end.

The bottom line is, first, that this latest episode of City Hall bureaucrats playing amateur scientists/businessmen has failed and, second, that the city is not candid about the failure. After going 50 percent over the budgeted money, going a total of 150 percent over the budgeted hole depth, going 2,000 percent over the budgeted time, disturbing neighbors to no end and creating a two-year eyesore, all we have is a financial black hole.

Maybe they can plug the hole with their never-used $1.5 million hydroelectric generator.

Published in The Aspen Times on July 13, 2013 at

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