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Friday, 06 November, 2020

Sunshine Above, Geothermal Below

In southern New Mexico—part of the vast Chihuahuan Desert—the predominant color in the landscape is brown. But inside the greenhouses at Masson Farms, in a village called Radium Springs, it’s all about color: pinks and reds and purples and oranges and yellows. The potted plants the company grows thrive there all year round, in large part because of an abundance of geothermal hot water that keeps the temperature carefully controlled.

The geothermal source is what drew company owner Alex R. Masson to the site in the 1980s—that, along with the area’s plentiful sunshine and access to an experienced agricultural labor force, according to the company’s Sales and Distribution Manager, Mark Salgado.

Masson “was ahead of his time on wanting to use renewable energy to heat greenhouses,” Salgado said in an interview.

Greenhouses are just one example of direct use of geothermal resources; other applications include heating water for fish farming, dehydrating garlic and onions, drying fruit, melting snow on roads and sidewalks, and heating buildings.

Unlike geothermal electricity generation, which harnesses heat from deep in the earth’s crust, direct-use geothermal taps underground hot water much closer to the surface. This is hardly a new idea; after all, civilizations have been building bathhouses around hot springs since ancient times.

For Masson Farms, geothermal made sense from a business standpoint. The company got its start smack in the middle of mainland United States—the current owner’s grandfather bought his first greenhouse in 1919 in Kansas City—but by the 1980s, natural gas prices were taking a toll.

“It takes a lot of natural gas to heat greenhouses in Kansas City,” Salgado explained. “It’s hard to make money when you’re spending so much in the winter to keep the plants alive.”

In New Mexico, the company uses no natural gas; rather, it keeps the greenhouses warm by using the near-boiling water from the natural subterranean hot springs that gave the town its name. (The place became known as Radium Springs in the 1920s, after the water was found to contain minute amounts of radium, which was thought to have healing properties, according to the New Mexico Tourism Department.)

When Masson found the site in Radium Springs, he employed a geologist to assist with the geothermal aspect and consulted with geothermal experts at nearby New Mexico State University, according to Salgado.

Masson Farms is now one of the largest geothermal greenhouse operations in the country, he said, with 26 acres of plants and 138 employees. The company wholesales its plants to retailers throughout the Southwestern United States, including Costco and supermarket and home improvement chains.

Miles and Miles of Piping 

The farm’s geothermal heating system circulates about 2 million gallons of water per day, then reinjects it deep into the ground. The hot water is pumped from two wells—one 180 feet deep and the other 110 feet—and passes through a heat exchanger room, where it is directed to where it needs to go, radiating warmth via a network of about 1.5 million feet (284 miles) of fiberglass piping. Grid electricity is used to run the pumps and handle cooling needs in the summer; the geothermal is used only for the heating system.Because the desert climate has wide fluctuations in temperatures, the geothermal heat is used all year, according to Salgado. Even on blistering hot summer days, it is needed at night to keep the greenhouses at the right temperature for the young plants—typically, depending on the species, from 74° to 76° Fahrenheit.

But it is during the winter months that the system really gets a workout. This year, an unusual late-October snowstorm sent the maintenance team into high gear earlier than usual.

No matter what the temperature outside, the plants inside the greenhouses—orchids, calla lilies, cyclamens, anthuriums, hibiscus, and a host of others—have to be watched closely for optimum health. “It’s a 24-hour operation,” Salgado said. “It’s like a hospital.” 

Years ago, Masson Farms looked into the possibility of generating geothermal electricity for the plant and for the village, but it wasn’t economically feasible, according to Salgado.
 
While the company has had to invest in geothermal infrastructure and maintenance of the system, it no longer has to worry about swings in fuel prices. “The geothermal is a more controlled cost, Salgado said.  
 
Plus, the company takes pride in being green. “We’re running an operation that is clean in relationship to the environment, to the workplace, and in the product that we produce,” Alex Masson says on the company’s website. “It brings clean enjoyment and it is everything to me.”
 



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