Pinkerton Hot Springs, La Plata County, Colorado, September 2012. Photo credit Colorado Geological Survey.


Geothermal energy, or heat from the earth, is an excellent resource. It is sustainable, works 24/7, and has a minimal carbon footprint. One should be clear when discussing geothermal energy about which type is being discussed: direct use, electrical generation, heat pumps, or enhanced geothermal systems (EGS).

Historically, Colorado has been considered to have geothermal resources suitable only for direct-use applications. Until very recently, Colorado’s geothermal potential for generating electrical power has been assigned little promise. This appears to be based more on a lack of study, rather than on sound science.

Prior to 2000, the CGS published more than 40 reports on various aspects of Colorado’s geothermal energy resources. With today’s improved technology, we are taking another look at our geothermal resources and are in the process of issuing revised and updated maps. It is exciting to see a number of companies actively looking at the potential for generating electricity from geothermal in several parts of the state.

Geothermal means, literally, earth-heat (Greek: geo + therme). Heat is a form of energy. Geothermal heat becomes an energy resource when we can use the heat to our advantage. It is an excellent resource that is sustainable, works 24/7, and has a minimal carbon footprint. Most of the Earth’s heat is deep inside the Earth, beyond the reach of technology to extract. At relatively shallow depths, depending on the temperature, the heat may be economically extracted and used.

At shallow depths the Earth may be used as a heat reservoir. In terms of magnitude, the Earth receives more than a thousand times more energy from the Sun than is lost from its internal reserves. However, the solar energy is lost back to space on a daily and seasonal basis. Except for small microclimates around hot springs and active volcanoes, the Sun controls the temperature of Earth’s surface and this temperature generally decreases with latitude from the equator to the poles and with elevation. Soil and rocks are poor conductors of heat and below around seven feet (2 m) below the surface, the annual and seasonal variations in surface temperature are damped out and the temperature is steady at approximately the mean annual ground surface temperature. Although this temperature is defined by the solar energy balance, it is soil and rock properties that make this zone good for use as a heat reservoir. Ground-source heat pumps (or geoexchange heat pumps) use this zone for heat storage and retrieval.

Where subsurface temperatures are significantly hotter than the surface temperatures heat may be extracted for surface use. This situation would occur where the geothermal gradient increases the temperature above the surface temperature. This difference may be only a few degrees, or even a few degrees above winter surface temperature for some direct use applications, to a few hundred degrees Celsius for geothermal electricity generation.

A further requirement for “elevated” subsurface temperatures to be a resource is that there must a mechanism by which the heat can be brought to the surface. For some resources the mechanism may be natural, such as hot springs or artesian (naturally flowing) wells. Other sites may require the drilling of a well and pumping. At many sites high subsurface temperatures are found but the rocks lack sufficient permeability (pathways for fluid flow). These rocks may require artificial fracturing or down-hole heat-exchangers to extract the heat. Research on new technologies to extract heat from potential geothermal reservoirs is continuing.

Areas in Colorado that are prime for new geothermal exploration include the Rico Dome structure in southwest Colorado, Mount Princeton Hot Springs, Waunita Hot Springs, and the San Luis Valley. These exploration targets represent potential sites with high heat flow. There are currently no geothermal electrical power generating facilities in Colorado.

Geothermal gradient is the rate of increase of temperature with depth. The most accurate values are derived from a series of temperature measurements at different depths, but these data are in the minority. Most geothermal gradients are derived from a single temperature measurement at the bottom of a well. The gradient is then calculated from the difference between the bottom-hole temperature (BHT) and the mean annual surface ground temperature at the well site divided by the depth of the well. The result is most commonly expressed in units of degrees Celsius per kilometer (°C/km) or degrees Fahrenheit per 100 feet (°F/100 ft). 10°C/km = 0.55°F/100 ft.

Geothermal gradient measurements are made at specific locations. Temperatures must vary smoothly, however, so there is an expectation that geothermal gradients will vary smoothly between measurements. Inevitably there are insufficient measurements to characterize all variations and details in temperature and geothermal gradient. Any attempt to draw contours between geothermal gradient measurements is an interpretation. We therefore call the contour map of geothermal gradients an interpretive geothermal gradient map.

Three significant factors should be recognized as interpretive in using a geothermal gradient map. The first is that gradients can change significantly with depth. Heat flow may not be vertical, especially in sedimentary basins with salt domes, but the geothermal gradient is most likely to change vertically with rock type as thermal properties of the rock change. Coal and shale have low thermal conductivity and are associated with high thermal gradients; evaporites (salt and dolomite) have high thermal conductivity and are associated with low thermal gradients. Where these rock types are stacked vertically the geothermal gradient could change by as much as a factor of six. In addition, the mode of heat transfer can change from conduction to convection by groundwater flow. In vertical sections dominated by groundwater flow, the geothermal gradient can drop to zero or even negative. Extrapolation of geothermal gradients to depths greater than the deepest temperature measurement used in the calculation of the geothermal gradient is an interpretation.

The second factor is the depth of measurement. A variety of different data sources have been compiled to contour the maps presented below. Most of these data are bottom-hole temperature data from oil and gas wells.In parts of some basins, such as the Denver Basin the depths of these data may exceed 3 km (9,850 feet). In other basins, such as the Raton Basin, most of the wells are shallower than 1 km (3,300 feet). In the mountain regions of Colorado gradient data are primarily compiled from detailed temperature logs from mineral exploration boreholes. Some of these boreholes exceed 1 km (3,300 feet) in depth, but many are shallower than 500 m (1, 650 feet). Thus, the depth at which the geothermal gradients represent direct measurements varies with the data source.

The third factor is that most of the oil and gas well bottom-hole temperature data are underestimates of the undisturbed rock temperatures. During drilling, one purpose of the circulating drilling mud is to cool the drill bit.The mud also cools the rock.Bottom-hole temperature measurements are generally made before rock at the bottom of the hole has re-heated from cooling by the drilling mud. The precise cooling and recovery time is different in every hole. General cooling corrections have been calculated and these have been applied to the data used in the maps presented below. However, they represent a source of uncertainty in the data.

Funding for this project was provided jointly by the Governor’s Energy Office (contract C900537) and the CGS, whose funding came from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Severance Tax Operational Fund. Severance taxes are derived from the production of gas, oil, coal, and minerals.

*The Interpretive Geothermal Gradient Map of Colorado includes three map plates, two report documents, a geothermal gradient database, and the native Geographic Information System (GIS) geospatial data files through which the interpretive geothermal gradient maps and projected temperature-at-depth maps. The data are also given as extrapolated temperatures to depth, but heed the cautions given above about the depths of temperature measurements. Geothermal gradient data points for the Interpretive Geothermal Gradient Map of Colorado are shown as black dots. The density of these control (data) points is quite variable. The density of data is highest around Mt Princeton and Hortense Hot Springs, the hottest hot spring system in Colorado and shown enlarged as an inset map on the main map. This high density of data indicates that where very high geothermal gradients are found, they are likely to be very localized. In many other areas of the state, for example the central and western Gunnison valley, there are few or no data. Single high (or low) gradient values may be contoured as broad anomalies such as the large anomaly over Rico in southwestern Colorado. The high geothermal gradients at Rico are real, but the extent of the anomaly shown on the map is questionable. However, no data currently exist to justify drawing it smaller. As we gather more data, we are learning that with “hot spots,” Mt Princeton is the more common size of a geothermal anomaly, not the size indicated for Rico.One area in which the geothermal gradient anomaly does appear to be relatively large in area is the Raton Basin, the southernmost basin in Colorado to the east of the Front Range. New data from this basin indicate that, while not extending quite as far east as shown on the current map, the thermal anomaly covers most of the eastern portion of the basin. Gradients in the basin are generally high, but very slow water flow from west to east appears to be transferring heat from west to east and increasing gradients generally to the east.

The current Interpretive Geothermal Gradient Map of Colorado is a general guide to where geothermal resources are likely to be found in Colorado. As more data are compiled and more is learned about the nature of individual geothermal anomalies, this map will be refined and become more useful at a sub-regional level.