October 25, 2023 1132 PM
PRESIDIO — At last weekend’s meeting, the Presidio Municipal Development District (PMDD) authorized a contract with the University of Texas at Austin to conduct a geothermal energy study in Presidio County near the Rio Grande. The study is estimated to take six to eight months and will determine whether or not Presidio County is a good candidate for a geothermal energy plant.
Ken Wisian — a geophysicist at UT-Austin — first introduced the idea at a Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting in June, endorsed by Trey Gerfers, general manager of the Presidio County Underground Water Conservation District. Along with the research of two dozen scientists and policy experts, Wisian was a lead author on a report called The Future of Geothermal in Texas: The Coming Century of Growth & Prosperity in the Lone Star State.
Though the report extensively outlines the science of geothermal energy and its potential implementation, Wisian told PMDD board members in July at a follow-up presentation that the title of the report said it all. “The amount of heat energy beneath our feet is estimated to be many thousands of times larger than what we would need to power not only Texas, but the world,” he said.
Geothermal energy plants bring hot water from below the Earth’s surface to ground level, where the water becomes steam. That steam can be used to power turbines, which in turn can generate electricity — a truly green source of energy, producing no greenhouse gasses.
The United States produces the most geothermal energy of any country in the world by sheer numbers — but that energy only powers 0.5% of the nation’s grid. In contrast, the small, Arctic nation of Iceland uses geothermal energy to meet 90% of its citizens’ heating needs.
Unlike other renewable sources, geothermal plants can keep the grid running regardless of environmental conditions like sun and wind. That’s a particularly attractive quality in a state like Texas, where record-high demand has led to widespread grid failure — most notably in February of 2021, when a winter storm left millions of Texans without water or power.
Wisian told the PMDD board back in July that Presidio County “checks all the boxes” for geothermal production — and that the most auspicious area of the region was located close to the river, though he could not provide an exact location without a formal study. He said that suitable sources of hot water would likely be found around 6.5 kilometers below the surface — a typical measurement for oil and gas wells.
Board members eventually voted to apportion $15,000 to fund the study. If the study produces successful results, the cost to get a geothermal energy operation up and running would likely cost $10 to $30 million, depending on the depth needed to drill into a water source.
Wisian indicated that — due to Presidio County’s status as a low-income, border county — a local clean energy project would likely be an attractive candidate for grant funding.
Over the next few months, PMDD members worked to draw up a contract with input from Bojorquez Law Firm, the organization’s legal counsel.
Board Secretary Lizette Rohana explained that the contract was drawn up between PMDD and UT-Austin, rather than Wisian as an individual. Other universities may eventually chip in on study research.
Rohana also said that money will not change hands until the study is completed. Ultimately, the project is a gamble — but one that the board is willing to make. “We don’t want to get our hopes up,” she said. “But it seems very promising because of prior studies that other universities have done.”