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People soak at Mount Princeton Hot Springs with the Chalk Cliffs in background, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, outside Nathrop. The mineral rich waters of the hot springs resort was established on this site in 1879. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado officials are steaming up the windows with warm, optimistic words about the potential for geothermal energy from our natural underground boilers to help speed the transition to clean energy. 

But they’re a bit cooler on when private capital will truly step up to fund geothermal projects, which can include expensive drilling, pipelines, heat exchangers and power lines to get off — or out from under — the ground. 

So the state is dangling $5 million in grants in the next year for geothermal projects. Those can range from individual homes using ground-source heat pump technology to utility-scale electric generation drawing on steam from the trusty boiling cauldrons under those delightful hot springs. Colorado also sees potential in so-called “district heating” from steady underground temperatures, using heat exchangers to control temperatures in a group of buildings such as a Colorado Mesa University project. 

“We’ve got great wind and solar resources that are moving towards very high levels of adoption of wind, solar and batteries,” Colorado Energy Office executive director Will Toor said in an interview Monday. “Geothermal electricity production also offers zero carbon electricity generation that’s available 24/7. So it’s a really important complement to wind and solar. And Colorado’s got a really attractive resource because we’ve got a lot of heat beneath our feet.” 

State officials say geothermal could fill in some of the 10 to 15% gap in Colorado energy needs expected to remain when intermittent wind and solar are fully exploited. 

Ground-source heat pumps have been around for a while, but can add expense to a home or office heating and cooling plan because of the digging and infrastructure involved. Most of the designs depend on getting pipes down to the depths where a constant 50 degree temperature serves as an energy bank. Subsidies will help speed the adoption of those smaller-scale technologies, state leaders believe. 

Colorado energy and business officials are also talking about the potential and the challenges of bigger electrical generation projects that would be based on Colorado’s numerous superheated underground water sources. A proposal in the Mount Princeton area is a good example, with entrepreneurs trying for years to get it out of the ground, and neighbors worried it will spoil the pristine remote views. 

Electrical generation projects may be helped by a separate new state program, the geothermal electricity tax credit. That’s a competitive award to private or public entities, with the opening for applications expected in spring 2024. New tax credits for individual geothermal heat systems and multibuilding networks will also begin in 2024. 

The state grants, which will be repeated next year, are now open for applications, launched Tuesday. 

Colorado’s geography gives the state some of the most “robust” potential in the country for clean geothermal energy, according to Toor and Gov. Jared Polis, who is also touting the grants. In winter, when air temperatures reach 10 degrees, a 50-degree constant underground heat gives heat pumps a head start in creating comfortable indoor temperatures. In summer, the same underground temperatures help pull down 90-degree air to reasonable indoor levels. 

For larger scale projects generating electricity and heat for hundreds or thousands of homes at once, it’s not just Colorado’s hot springs that point toward potential, Toor said. The oil basins in northeastern Colorado also have reachable hot water, and developers might deepen existing well bores to take advantage of the geothermal resources there. 

“There’s hot granite underneath, and shale, and so there are actually opportunities to do new geothermal development there,” Toor said. “So we think there’ll be a lot of opportunities to look at geothermal development that aren’t just in those beautiful and beloved hot springs areas.”

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...