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Eagle County gets $1.5 million federal grant for bus barn. County also considering geothermal to cool and heat old courthouse and other buildings.


by Allen Best

In trying to take the long view, which all governments should, Colorado’s Eagle County has concluded that geothermal will most economically heat its 14,000-square-foot bus garage.

It helps that the county has now received a $1.5 million grant from the federal government.

The bus barn is located in Gypsum, about a mile off Interstate 70, near the west end of the runway at Eagle County Regional Airport. Buses housed in the building belong to the Eagle Valley Transit Authority. They ply routes from Dotsero to Vail and somewhat beyond to Leadville.

The project will not change the shell of the building. The  concrete floor was replaced several years ago, and when it was, Eagle County installed tubing that allows heating via heated water.

Water can be heated in various ways, most commonly with electricity and by burning natural gas. A study of the comparisons showed a much steeper upfront cost for geothermal but much lower fuel costs over time.

A field of geothermal wells of about 500 feet in depth will be able to yield the necessary heat at an annual cost of $12,000 to $14,0000, according to preliminary engineering estimates. That is the cost of the electricity needed to pump the water and compress the heat (or coolness in summer).

This compares with $60,000 to $70,000 annually for the cost of electricity to fire boilers.

The geothermal heating also fared well compared with natural gas-fired boilers, in part because of the sturdiness of the geothermal system, with a projected life of 60 to 80 years.

Jesse Meryhew, the facilities manager for Eagle County,  says he has been persuaded partly by the those who already have geothermal.

Foremost is the example of Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where many of the buildings, both classrooms and some dormitories, are heated and cooled by a field of geothermal wells.

Also instructive is a building in Gunnison County comparable in size to the bus barn in Gypsum, that has been heated with geothermal. Gunnison is far colder than Gypsum.

Also instructive were the webinars sponsored by  the Western Governors’ Association during the  last year after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis made geothermal his signature effort as chair of the organization. He called the program “Heat Beneath Our Feet.”

“Geothermal is not a new technology, which is something I personally like,” says Meryhew. “It’s a proven technology. It’s very efficient and it has longevity. As  a government entity, that’s something we are looking for. We are looking for systems that last and systems that are simple to work on. It’s really a valid long-term  solution.”

There is the upfront cost. Would they have done this project without the grant funneled through the Federal Transit Administration?

“It would have been a lot more challenging without the grant for sure,” he says. Final engineering has yet to be complete, but cost is likely to be around $2 million.

Eagle County is also looking at potentially using geothermal for its administrative building and adjoining old courthouse. The air conditioning for the building is nearing its end of life, and a replacement will cost close to $500,000. The campus has two acres available for wells. Meryhew expects a decision in the next 6 to 8 months.

There has also been talk about creating a district heating-and-cooling system that includes a nearby library and a senior citizens housing complex. Meryhew points to Colorado Mesa University as an example for potential expansion over a number of years.

Allen Best
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