Is a geothermal system right for the Brown Ranch?

YVHA board includes a ground source heating system among three options to study further for 2,300-unit development

A drawing depicts Neighborhood A at Brown Ranch, the first part of the community planned for construction. The first units are expected in 2026.
Yampa Valley Housing Authority/Courtesy photo

On Thursday, Dec. 15, the Yampa Valley Housing Authority board opted to further investigate three options for heating homes at the Brown Ranch, with one of those options being a communitywide geothermal system.

The other two options were a baseline electric system with a natural gas backup and an all-electric system. Each requires more energy than geothermal, but would likely have cheaper costs upfront — though a geothermal system could have significant grant funding opportunities.  

These three options were narrowed down from a dozen choices, with six different heating sources each reviewed for two types of construction. Further analysis will delve into both the upfront and long-term costs to operate each system to inform the ultimate decision.

“We are going to head down the road at some point where we need to start designing the first phase, and if there is not (natural gas connections), we need to know that,” YVHA Executive Director Jason Peasley said. “If there is geothermal loops, we need to know that, too.”

“This decision is significant and important, and we need to do it thoughtfully, but we need to do it soon,” he continued.

Part of the haste is that Yampa Valley Electric Association will need to beef up the grid locally to accommodate the Brown Ranch. A new transformer would need to be able to accommodate the peak energy need, which largely hinges on the heating source chosen, according to the analysis from the engineering firm Page Consultants.

The choice is a critical decision for the 2,300-unit development on Steamboat Springs’ west side, as it could have an effect on both how affordable and how sustainable the development will be. While sustainability is a focus of the Brown Ranch, Peasley said affordability is the top priority.

“We’ve got to follow our guidance from the steering committee and look at affordability to our end users first and foremost,” Peasley said. “Sustainability is second.”

This slide from Page Consulting’s presentation to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority Board details the differences between 2021 energy codes and passive house requirements.
Page Consulting/Courtesy image

Building envelope

The first decision point was which standard the buildings in the Brown Ranch will be built to: either the 2021 energy code Routt County intends to adopt in 2023 or a tighter building standard known as passive house.

The passive house option is more efficient no matter which heating choice is made, though there are diminishing returns. For example, while passive house would improve efficiency if a geothermal system is installed, the gains are much greater when looking at all-electric and gas-backed options. Still, those efficiencies could be offset by increased building costs.

“You are getting diminishing energy savings for significantly increased construction costs,” said Jimmy Principe, an analytic engineer with Page.

YVHA Board Vice President Leah Wood said she wanted to pick one — either the 2021 energy code or passive house — and then study different mechanical systems. Peasley agreed, saying that the housing authority could always add more stringent building requirements, and the standard building code will get more efficient over the 25-year Brown Ranch buildout.

The board opted to look at each of the options in terms of the 2021 codes.

This slide from Page Consulting’s presentation to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority Board shows how the peak energy needs for each system changes throughout the year.
Page Consulting/Courtesy image

Gas, electric and geothermal

While a geothermal system is likely the most expensive to install, it could be cheaper in the long run as it uses significantly less energy.

The analysis from Page showed that a geothermal system, which is powered by electricity, would have a single-day peak of about 9,400 kW. The baseline gas-backed option would peak at 14,600 kW and the all-electric option would peak at 24,400 kW.

Housing authority board member Mike Beyer, who also works for YVEA, said the costs associated with improving the grid to accommodate an all-electric system and its higher peak energy need could make that option impractical.

No matter what option is chosen, YVEA will need to install another transformer to increase grid capacity, and the heating choice will help inform how big that transformer needs to be. One thing pushing on the decision is that transformers are dealing with broader supply chain issues and could take up to three years to secure, though Beyer noted there may be other options to get a transformer quicker.

Board member Roger Ashton said he wanted to study the electric option anyway, even though it did seem “out of the question” for the Brown Ranch.   

“There has been a lot of discussion in the community about should (Brown Ranch) be an all-electric community,” Ashton said. “I think we need to be able to show them why it’s not going to be.”

Principe also recommended the board study the baseline dual fuel, gas-backed option, as that would be the cheapest one to install and would make for a good comparison point with the geothermal option. One of the unknowns with the baseline is the long-term affordability of natural gas.

There were also two different options presented for the geothermal system, one that would be building by building and another that would span the whole community. Ed MacArthur, a member of the steering committee, said his concern with a building by building system is it would put the onus for repairs on individual homeowners, where a community system would operate more like a utility.

“It’s very expensive to fix if it goes bad,” MacArthur said. “I’ve been in the business long enough to know everything goes bad at some point and somebody has to fix it.”

While a communitywide geothermal system is not yet common, Paul Bony, the transportation and energy director for the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, pointed to several projects across the country that have gone that route.

Greg Tinkler, the principal-in-charge for Page, said the federal government has tried to incentivize getting away from natural gas, and many communities on the East and West coasts have already outlawed new construction connecting to a gas line. Because of this, there could be significant funding opportunities for the Brown Ranch if geothermal is the choice, potentially paying for half the cost, he said.

“It seems to me this is one of those cases where affordability and sustainability are in line,” said Tim Wohlgenant, a member of the Brown Ranch Steering Committee, referencing the geothermal system. “It will depend on what the upfront cost is to install that.”

Page will further review these options to get detailed cost analysis that includes all the various building types expected at the Brown Ranch and report back to the housing authority next year.

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