Vail’s Innovative Approach to Decarbonizing Its Snowmelt System with Geothermal Energy

Vail, known for its beautiful pedestrian streets without snow, has a lot to thank an innovative snowmelt system for. Set up in the early 2000s, it works from November through May. It uses natural gas boilers to warm up a mix of water and safe-for-food glycol that flows under the streets and paths of Vail Village and Lionshead. While it does a great job keeping the walkways clear of ice, the amount of energy it uses is starting to worry people.

The Push for Climate Action Goals

  • Vail’s Climate Objectives: In the recently concluded Vail Stewardship Roadmap, the town set ambitious targets to reduce 2014 baseline carbon emissions by 25% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 80% by 2050. These goals align with enhancing community resilience, improving the Gore Creek watershed, and upholding a globally recognized sustainability standard.
  • Strategy for Snowmelt System Decarbonization: A primary strategy to achieve these objectives involves seeking innovative methods to decarbonize the town’s snowmelt system, potentially through renewable energy solutions and district-heat approaches.

Exploring Alternatives and Past Attempts

Previously, Vail explored alternative fuel sources for its snowmelt system. In 2010 and 2011, the town considered a co-generation biomass plant using beetle-kill wood but did not proceed due to sustainability concerns and lack of federal grant funding. In 2021, an electric snowmelt boiler was installed near the Concert Hall Plaza in Lionshead. However, its operational costs, significantly higher than natural gas, led to continued exploration of alternatives, focusing on geothermal energy.

The Promise of Geothermal Energy

  • Efficiency of Geothermal Energy: According to Cameron Millard, Vail’s energy efficiency coordinator, geothermal heat pumps could be three to six times more efficient than electric resistance and might offer cost-effectiveness compared to natural gas.
  • Benefits of Geothermal Boreholes: Geothermal boreholes can utilize waste heat from large buildings, wastewater, and other sources for snowmelt heating. These boreholes can also serve as thermal storage, maintaining heat seasonally.
  • Case Study Example: A successful implementation of a networked geothermal system is present at Mesa State University in Grand Junction, where over 1 million square feet of building space is heated and cooled through this method.

Feasibility Study and Preliminary Steps

The town contracted Grey Edge Group, with a history of designing the Mesa State system, to assess the feasibility of a geothermal solution for Vail’s snowmelt system. The study commenced at the end of 2023 with PanTerra Energy drilling a 500-foot borehole in Ford Park, followed by thermal conductivity testing to understand the geothermal resources better. Preliminary results are expected this winter, with further analysis in spring.

Future Prospects and Challenges

  • Networked Geothermal System: The feasibility study extends to exploring how a networked geothermal system, using heat exchangers and heat pumps, could serve other buildings and systems in town.
  • Technical and Financial Hurdles: The study will also address the technical, legal, logistic, and financial challenges of implementing such a system. If approved, the next step would involve design work on the system.
  • Continuous Pursuit of Decarbonization: Regardless of the system’s implementation, Vail remains committed to pursuing the decarbonization of its snowmelt system to save costs and reduce emissions.

Community Engagement and Awareness

Getting the community involved and aware is a big deal when we’re switching things up. We need to teach people, both locals and tourists, why renewable energy and especially geothermal are so great. This will help everyone get on board. Having workshops, info talks, and showing off the tech in action will make a huge difference.

Statewide Support for Geothermal Development

The state of Colorado, under Gov. Jared Polis, is actively promoting geothermal development. The Colorado Energy Office launched the Geothermal Energy Grant Program (GEGP) in late 2023 to support geothermal energy projects for electricity generation, space heating, and cooling. This initiative aligns with Vail’s endeavors in exploring renewable energy solutions. For more information on geothermal energy and its applications, you can visit the U.S. Energy Information Administration website.

Image Source: Dbenbenn assumed (based on copyright claims).CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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