Pagosa Springs businesses tap geothermal heat

Earth-powered brewery one of only two nationwide

When customers belly up to the bar at Riff Raff Brewing Co. in downtown Pagosa Springs to enjoy a Hopgoblin IPA, they can feel better about their beer-drinking environmental footprint.

Riff Raff is one of only two breweries in the United States powering its process with direct-use geothermal hot water, according to co-owner Jason Cox. The restaurant and brewery was opened in May 2013 by two entrepreneurial couples who searched for a downtown location within the town’s 12-block geothermal heating district. With their Earth-powered beer that launched this summer, the owners are contributing to the mountain community’s mojo. The owners hope to help raise the town’s profile as a geothermal business hub.

“Our guests are able to enjoy a soak in the springs and then come and enjoy a beer that was brewed using that same hot water power,” Cox says.

Riff Raff, housed in a remodeled 1896 Victorian home, is one of 23 customers and 31 locations in the heating district, founded in 1981 and funded by a federal block grant. The town system draws from a 144-degree Fahrenheit source and is activated each year from October through April. A handful of other active geothermal wells in town provide heat to operations such as spas. The district helps Riff Raff save 75 percent on bills compared to natural gas, which, Cox says, is a big positive for his small business.

“It is a way to even out the ups and downs of the tourism economy in Pagosa Springs,” says Kathy Keyes, co-founder of the Pagosa Baking Co. that utilizes geothermal for heat and to keep the sourdough starter room a constant temperature all winter.

Keyes volunteers with the nonprofit Geothermal Greenhouse Partnership, working to expand the use of geothermal in town. The partnership is constructing three small geothermal greenhouses in a town park for use in education, agricultural innovation, and a year-round community garden. The project, in association with the town, is funded in part by a Colorado Department of Local Affairs grant.

“I envision it as a way to develop interest in our unique alternative energy diversification in Pagosa Springs, whether through municipal expansion of the system or though new or existing business expansion,” Keyes says.

Colorado residents recognize the use of underground hot water for swimming pools, for example, yet the state has not been able to fully capitalize on non-resort commercial uses, according to Michael McReynolds, policy adviser with the Colorado Energy Office. Downtown Pagosa Springs is the best success story for multiple uses, McReynolds says; however, he currently is seeing a resurgence in interest from other communities to tap into geothermal for direct uses ranging from light manufacturing to greenhouses.

Another example of retail use of geothermal is at the Villa Mall just west of Alamosa that encompasses almost 54,000 square feet and eight business units heated via 112-degree water pumped from a well 3,000 feet deep. Mall partner Eric Burt says the system was built in the 1960s but upgraded five years ago to use less hot water before it is discharged into the Rio Grande River.

Construction company owner Bob Hart moved his business into the Pagosa Springs heating district five years ago and spent $8,000 to convert the 2,000-square-foot building from natural gas to geothermal heat. His monthly geothermal bill is only $37.50, representing a 62 percent savings compared to natural gas, and he will pay off the initial infrastructure costs within seven years.

“Plus it’s not using fossil fuels,” Hart said. “That’s the big thing for me.”

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