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Local officials commit $15,000 to study of geothermal energy potential in Presidio County

Geothermal energy resources in Texas, as depicted in a sweeping report from multiple universities earlier this year.
(The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation)
Geothermal energy resources in Texas, as depicted in a sweeping report from multiple universities earlier this year.

City officials in Presidio voted Wednesday to pay $15,000 for a study of how much renewable geothermal energy might be available for tapping in Presidio County, a move that supporters hope could pave the way for local business opportunities in the state’s budding geothermal sector.

Marfa resident Trey Gerfers, who brought the idea to the city’s economic development district, pitched the study as an initial step toward eventually generating geothermal electricity in the county and bolstering the local economy. (Gerfers leads Presidio County’s groundwater conservation district, but told Marfa Public Radio he was advocating for the geothermal study as an interested local citizen.)

“You could revitalize a lot of the agriculture around here, you could do food processing, you could sell things to Mexico with that added energy source,” he said. “It could open the way to a lot of development, especially in the south of the county.”

Members of the Presidio Municipal Development District voted unanimously to pay researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, led by geophysicist Ken Wisian, to conduct the study.

The move came after turmoil at the district this year, which saw multiple board members resign in January over concerns about alleged mismanagement and the district’s priorities.

Wisian said the initial study would be limited in scope and should take about six months to complete.

“This is mostly analyzing existing data, perhaps doing new measurements on rock samples that we have from the region,” he said. “There wouldn’t be a whole bunch of field work at this stage.”

Texas does not currently have an operating geothermal power plant, and geothermal energy still only accounts for about .4% of all utility-scale electricity generation in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Still, the renewable energy source - drawn from underground heat - has been touted as an “off ramp” for fossil fuels and a key tool in the fight against climate change.

Earlier this year, researchers from multiple Texas universities released a sweeping report on the state’s geothermal prospects, arguing the resource is economically viable in Texas thanks in part to existing oilfield drilling technology. The report was funded in part by a pro-geothermal advocacy group.

Despite geothermal’s position as a fossil fuel alternative, Texas oil companies have shown an interest in jumpstarting the sector. A pro-geothermal trade group launched in 2022 includes major oil and gas players like Chevron and Halliburton.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Wisian told local officials that a handful of geothermal projects are currently “brewing” across Texas, from Beumont to El Paso. Areas on the Gulf Coast and along the Rio Grande show the best potential for geothermal energy in the state, he said.

“Both of those areas are basically first on my list as good, economical geothermal development targets,” Wisian said.

Gerfers said he had already been in talks with one area landowner who has a “running hot well” on his land that could provide the UT research team with a sample of geothermal resources in the area.

Wisin cautioned that the initial study wouldn’t guarantee that geothermal would take off in the county.

“I think things look favorable, but there’s no guarantee that in this initial wave that a company will pick any particular spot and make a serious play for it,” he said.

Asked at Wednesday’s meeting whether the development district had $15,000 on hand to commit to the project, district board member and secretary Christina Juarez said officials had “left a lot of wiggle room for things that could pop up.”

“We do have that space for additional projects,” added board member Liz Rohana.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.