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Commercial geothermal plant touted for NM

ANIMAS – A hot water resource tapped first for growing roses, then for raising fish, is now supplying New Mexico’s first commercial-scale geothermal electricity.

Cyrq Energy Inc. has turned the key on its $43 million geothermal power plant Lightning Dock. Chief Executive Nick Goodman, Gov. Susana Martinez and electricity provider Public Service Company of New Mexico are touting the project today as a way to diversify the state’s renewable energy resources.

“Renewable energy has its issues, like fossil fuels, but geothermal overcomes a lot of the challenges,” Goodman said.

Unlike wind and solar, a geothermal plant can supply energy nonstop.

Still, the project has rattled some locals – including farmers, members of the Lordsburg Soil and Water Conservation board and the local owner of one of the country’s largest tilapia hatcheries – who worry that the project could upset water quality or availability. Cyrq says its process of pumping and re-injecting water will neither contaminate nor deplete the shallow aquifer – “zero pollution, zero emissions,” it said in a statement.

State officials charged with regulating the project say that while the precise underground water flow is not fully understood, the company assumes some entrepreneurial risk. As it ramps up, Cyrq is required to monitor water levels and quality and submit that data to the Oil Conservation Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

“Not all of the questions are answered,” said Carl Chavez, an OCD environmental engineer, following a November visit to the plant. “They are proceeding at some risk if there are any water quality issues, any water drawdown issues. The state is authorized and empowered to modify the permit as needed (or) to terminate the permit if things go completely wrong out there.”

Near the intersection of Geothermal and Hot Water roads, Cyrq has built a power plant where a different outfit once used the warm water near the surface to grow roses. The company is tapping what is known as a “hydrogeologic window,” in which 300-degree water flows upward through faults and fractures.

Cyrq pumps hot water from 1,200 feet to 3,000 feet below ground at estimated flow rates of 2,200 gallons per minute, pulls it to the desert surface to heat a secondary fluid, which in turn spins turbines to generate electricity. The company re-injects the somewhat cooled geothermal water back into the ground nearby. The water never sees the light of day and, Goodman says, it is not spent or wasted.

Cyrq launched production Dec. 24 and is generating about 4 megawatts of electricty.

With economics more akin to the mining industry than to wind or solar, geothermal producers know that “the more you learn about the resource, the better off you will be in the long run,” said Ben Matek, analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Geothermal Energy Association. “This is the first project in New Mexico, so we’ll learn a lot.”

The project has garnered high-level political support since its inception in 2009, when the company spearheading the effort was known as Raser Technologies Inc. That company declared bankruptcy in 2011 and later re-emerged as Cyrq Energy.

Not a half mile from the plant, AmeriCulture Inc. raises tilapia fingerlings in geothermally heated pools. Owner Damon Seawright has been a vocal opponent of the project. In letters to the OCD and at public hearings, Seawright has said his studies suggest the company’s injection well will not protect shallow groundwater.

“If we see water levels going down, we’re going to have to act,” Chavez told a full house at a public meeting in Lordsburg in November, where Seawright voiced his concerns.

Is geothermal water an energy resource, water or both?

The state Legislature in 2012 settled that question by deciding that the use of water over 250 degrees should be regulated as an energy resource by the OCD, while water below that temperature remains under the purview of the Office of the State Engineer, which oversees water rights.

“The state engineer is the creed we have always abided by in our area since 1912,” said David Ramos of Ramos Farms. “Pardon the pun, but it’s unchartered water.”