New Mexico Tech is warming to geothermal energy.
The science and engineering university is looking into several research projects in renewable energy, including an intriguing plan to use naturally heated groundwater to heat the campus.
"A lot can be done with warm groundwater," said the university's vice president for research, Dr. Van Romero. "Energy and commerce. You can heat a fish tank or heat a greenhouse and grow roses."
Or heat a building.
The school is mapping out plans for an $11 million geothermal plant that Romero said could heat all the university's buildings. He said the cost would be offset by $800,000 in annual savings after natural gas bills vanished.
New Mexico is capitalizing on a growing interest in geothermal projects.
Already, a Utah-based company, Raser Technologies Inc., is building the state's first commercial geothermal power plant south of Lordsburg. It will produce electricity for about 5,500 homes in the Phoenix area.
Scientists say the western two-thirds of New Mexico holds potential for geothermal energy projects. New Mexico Tech's proposed plant would tap into natural features of the Socorro area.
"Anyone who lives in Socorro knows we don't have cold water coming out of our taps," Romero said.
In the area, precipitation flows into large reservoirs under the Magdalena Mountains, where it becomes heated. Then it rises through rifts of deep crystalline rocks that were fractured by ancient volcanic events.
New Mexico Tech hydrogeology professor Mark Person said the water's movement is aided by elevation differences between the 11,000-foot mountains and the 4,600-foot Socorro area.
"You've got a sand-filled bathtub filled with water that is supplying Socorro springs," Person said. "There is a huge supply of water at a higher elevation, almost like a water storage tank."
Electricity-producing geothermal stations, such as the one planned near Lordsburg, require very hot groundwater to spin a turbine.
New Mexico Tech's plant would use lower-temperature groundwater and run it through a heat exchanger. A similar system heats Idaho's capitol building and state government offices in Boise.
Jim Witcher, a Las Cruces geology consultant, said the technology has been successfully demonstrated to heat greenhouses at New Mexico State University and a commercial greenhouse in Radium Springs.
Another benefit to the plant, Romero said, is that New Mexico Tech could offer a graduate-level program in geothermal engineering.
The university would combine a world-class hydrogeology faculty with programs and resources in the petroleum and chemical engineering departments.
"It would be easy to link the dots," Person said.
However, the project faces potential hurdles on the financing side.
There's been good news. Person said the U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $473,000 to drill a 1,500-foot geothermal test well in the foothills of Socorro Peak, where engineers hope to find higher water temperatures at that depth.
On the other hand, additional funding may need to come through a cost-sharing plan with private-sector businesses. Researchers also will apply next month for $5 million through another energy department grant.
Person said many recently funded federal grants in geothermal research have focused on energy production, not the direct-use space heating approach favored by New Mexico Tech's proposal.
"We hope the DOE feels our low-temperature resources are just as attractive," Person said.