Aspen looking underground for clean energy source

(Image: St. Regis Resort in Aspen)

The city of Aspen is planning to drill a hole 1,000 feet deep in a gravel parking lot this fall to explore whether there is enough heat underground to provide affordable and sustainable carbon-neutral energy.

The test well, projected to be 6 to 8 inches wide, would test whether temperatures beneath Aspen are between 90 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, as preliminary studies in recent years have suggested.

The parking lot next to Prockter Open Space has been selected for the project. Aspen’s Open Space and Trails Board, which operates the gravel lot, first must approve the project.

If an approval is granted, the operation would get under way in September and last between 30 and 45 days, according to officials. Situated just west of the old mines on Smuggler Mountain, work at the test site would target hot groundwater without disturbing any heavy metal deposits in the area, they said.

“We wanted to pick a site that is city-owned and as close to the old mine workings as possible without being in them,” said John Kaufman of Rocky Mountain Water Consulting, which is advising the city. “We are looking to find out the temperature of the water, the water chemistry, like if it is hard water or alkaline and we hope not to find heavy metals in the water. We have to do it near but not in the old mines because drilling into the old mines can be very dangerous but since we heard the water was hot while the miners were working down there, it’s good to be close to them.”

Well over a century ago, Aspen became the first city west of the Mississippi River to harness hydroelectric power, according to local historians. So it is fitting that Aspen help blaze the trail for municipal geothermal energy, which is promoted as a renewable and eco-friendly form of power.

The labyrinth of tunnels and shafts from Aspen’s mining heyday could make for an ideal reservoir to heat and cool groundwater, according to a 2008 city geothermal feasibility study.

The total project budget is set at $200,000 with $50,000 of that coming from a Governor’s Energy Office Grant and the rest of the funds coming from the city’s electric and water utility revenues.

Officials noted the test site is only to determine geothermal potential and it does not mean it is a permanent site or that the city would then automatically begin pursuing geothermal resources. The parking lot will be closed to the public but parking at Herron Park will remain a viable option.

Aspen is exploring geothermal as part of its commitment to the Canary Initiative, which established a goal to reduce the city’s greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

This story first appeared at

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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