The tomatoes are not helping. Instead of growing on the grill, the plants intertwine throughout the garden bed and lean, menacingly, on a young vine.
On a warm August afternoon, Pauline Benetti and Diane Kelsey try to teach the plant to climb by tying its stems to the wood and metal structure.
It is high season for the juicy red fruits, but these two volunteers not only struggle with these plants to conclude the end of the summer harvest. They want tomatoes to grow in the right direction in the greenhouse throughout the year.
His work is part of a five-year program conducted by the Geothermal Greenhouse Association (GGP) in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.
The organization, in coordination with that town in southwestern Colorado, is turning the world’s deepest hot springs into something much more than a tourist destination: it is using that renewable energy source to grow food for the community throughout the yea
In the center of the small town, on the banks of the San Juan River, there are three impressive geodesic greenhouses of 13 meters in diameter each.
They contrast vividly with the old buildings on the street above. All will house gardens, but each one will have a different mission.
The three greenhouses use geothermal energy to grow plants year-round, even in Colorado’s cold weather.
The first, the dome of education, was built in 2016. It is the only one of the three that is already working. Volunteers stop there to prune and plant every day. More than 300 students have visited it to learn about plants and practice their mathematical and scientific skills.
“Everything we do is focused on teaching sustainable agriculture to the next generation and growing food all year round, which is quite special (at an altitude of 2,180 meters above sea level),” says Sally High, a former teacher of environmentalism and treasurer of the GGP board.
The geothermal waters come from the village wells, thanks to an access agreement made with the town.
A heat exchanger inside each greenhouse uses the geothermal liquid to heat the running water, which is channeled through a pipe that crosses the greenhouse floor during the cold winter months. Then, the geothermal fluid returns to its natural path.
This closed circuit is as close as possible to non-consumption, which means that virtually no water is consumed during this process, since most of it returns to the earth.
At the same time, it allows the greenhouse to maintain a constant temperature close to 14 ° C on the coldest winter nights and at 32 ° C on the warmest summer days (a pond, fans, a spray system and the windows also help regulate temperature).
This allows zucchini, kale and beet to be grown at any time of the year, an additional advantage for a village located on a high mountain, where the average frost-free harvest season lasts less than 80 days.
The method will be similar in the community greenhouse, which is scheduled to open before the end of 2018. There, local civil organizations – such as food banks and veterans associations – will have their own gardens in which they will grow food to feed to their communities.
In the dome of education, volunteers grow plants every day.
The greenhouse for innovation, which will start operating in 2019, has a different objective.
It will contain a hydroponic cultivation system, fish farms and plants that, together, will form part of a symbiotic system – in which the waste of the fish will serve as fertilizer to the plants and these will filter the water of the fish – that will use a tenth part of the water required by a traditional method of cultivation.
It will be a controlled environment, so the dome will be closed to the general public and will only open for exhibitions and special visits.
“Agricultural markets operate on a seasonal basis, which takes agriculture in Colorado to be very local and working year-round,” says High, who sees Pagosa’s greenhouse project as an economic and tourism engine for that town. “Our geothermal resources are underutilized and undervalued.”
Abundant and underutilized energy
The UTE Indians discovered the therapeutic waters of the area in the 19th century.
More than a century later, in 1982, the town, with the help of the Department of Energy, created a heating system that uses geothermal water to heat some 60 businesses and local homes and melts snow on the sidewalks of that small town (there are about 20 similar systems in other parts of the United States).
“It’s an energy source that works 24/7/365, it’s not intermittent like solar or wind, the project for its direct use … is fully replicable,” says High.
Pagosa Springs is not alone in growing food with geothermal sources. But this process is still rare in the United States. According to the most recent revision of facilities for the direct use of geothermal energy in that country, carried out in February 2017, only 29 greenhouses were surveyed.
Discovered in the 19th century, these hot springs are popular for their therapeutic uses.
“Something unique to geothermal sources, in addition to their ability to provide energy, is that they can also provide these other services to a community that allow it to be more self-sufficient,” says Katherine Young, NREL program manager for geothermal energy.
Most of the geothermal energy talks are focused on Iceland, where this natural resource represents 25% of the country’s electricity production and where 90% of homes are geothermally heated.
Other European countries have access to geothermal energy sources, medium and low temperatures, which in some way limits them, given that higher temperatures are more appropriate for the production of electricity. Despite this, at least 13 countries take advantage of them for their greenhouses, among other uses.
But the United States has not taken full consciousness of its geothermal potential. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), “The United States is the world leader in installed geothermal capacity, with more than 3.7 gigawatts”, most of which is located in the west. from the country.
However, a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted in 2006, found that investment in technology could lead to access to more than 100 gigawatts in the next five decades, thus covering more than 10% of the country’s electricity demand.
Last year, the DOE announced an investment of $ 4 million in six feasibility studies on the direct use of this energy.
“There is a ton of heat beneath the surface of the United States and it can be used everywhere.” This can have a significant role in the energy economy in the country, “says Young.
So far, the GGP Project has been funded primarily with grants, including about $ 174,500 recently received from the Colorado Water Plan and the Colorado Water Conservation Board, as well as donations.
But as the conclusion of the last dome approaches, the team wants to hire a manager, their first employee.
The resources will come from private donors, as well as the sale of innovation dome foods in local restaurants and agricultural markets.
Visitors can also buy tomatoes and lettuce from the education dome, on two days a week that is open to the public. Part of its production also ends in agricultural markets.
During this summer, the vegetables grown in the education greenhouse were used in the preparation of the meals offered as part of the free feeding program for children in need.
For local youth like Tucker Haines, the greenhouse of education allows them much more than the opportunity to learn about food and grow fresh foods. During the last school year, every Monday this 13-year-old went from Pagosa Springs High School to GGP Park.
His math teacher thought that practical activities could help them finally understand the formulas and fractions they studied in class.
Thus, Tucker and his companions measured the gardens and the plants and carried calendars in which they pointed when the seeds germinated. They also planted and collected cabbage, cauliflower and cabbage.
“In my normal math class, it was hard for me to understand things well,” Tucker said. However, suddenly, the numbers started to make sense.
“This made him enjoy math,” said his mother, Nancy Haines.
Tucker’s experience is the kind of community benefit that High and the rest of the GGP project members hoped to achieve when they started their mission a decade ago.
“It’s a living laboratory that we have right there in the center of the city,” says Cindy Schultz, head of planning at Pagosa.
“This gives people an idea of what is possible,” he adds..