Montana State University

Waking a sleeping buffalo: MSU students explore renewable energy on the Hi-Line

May 19, 2005 -- by Jean Arthur, MSU News Service


Montana State University engineering seniors (left to right) Josh Ricardi, Matt Iames and Clint Finlayson examined a geothermal well at Sleeping Buffalo Resort near Saco as a potential power source for the resort. (Photo courtesy Michael Cole.)    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Bozeman--Three Montana State University engineering students examined ways to wake a sleeping buffalo--not the powerful American bison capable of sprinting 40 miles per hour, but the potential power source under the earth's surface at Sleeping Buffalo Resort along Montana's Hi-Line.

Faced with a $50,000 annual power bill, resort owner Roger Ereaux of Saco sought help from MSU engineering students. They researched how renewable energy might lower power bills. The resort features two hot springs mineral pools, as well as lodging, dining and recreation.

Clint Finlayson of Conrad, Matthew Iames of Dayton, Wyo., and Josh Ricardi of Gardiner completed a College of Engineering capstone project that examined potential energy sources at the Hi-Line hot springs respite. They examined geothermal, micro hydro, wind and solar sources from different engineering disciplines: mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering.

"Creating an alternative energy system which saves money is not easy," Iames said. "If it were, everyone would be doing it, and we would not have coal or nuclear power."

MSU professors Doug Cairns, mechanical engineering, Michael Cole, industrial and management engineering, and Hashem Nehrir, electrical engineering, directed the students.

"We began looking at the potential for alternative energy about a year ago after I'd spent some time pheasant hunting nearby," said Cairns. "I was having breakfast at the Sleeping Buffalo Resort when the owner began telling me about how much he has to spend on electricity and propane for heating the place. It would make sense to utilize the natural geothermal resource that's right there, underneath much of the Hi-Line."

The project began in September 2004.

Cairns said that a well-known geothermal structure exists about 3,200 feet below much of the Hi-Line. Oil crews discovered artesian waters in the 1920s. WPA workers dug a well in the 1930s, later replaced in the 1960s. The hot spring's name derives from a particular rock that resembles a buffalo.

The MSU students examined the aging well and found that although water emerges at 106 degrees Fahrenheit, the well leaks. Pressure and temperature are significantly reduced. The students used mechanical and industrial engineering concepts to evaluate heat transfer, explore electricity production potential and assess the economic impact of a new well that could pump hot water not only to Sleeping Buffalo Resort soak pools but to heat the hotel as well.

A community meeting in early May at the resort culminated the initial round of research. The students presented, "Alternative Energy Opportunities for the Hi-Line."

"For the resort to utilize the geothermal energy, the owner will need to dig a new $200,000 well," said Finlayson, who will graduate in industrial engineering in December. "Our recommendation is to install a direct heating system: piping water through the building for heat, either using a forced air radiator, convection or in-floor radiant heating. The latter would be feasible only on new construction at the resort."

Ricardi, a mechanical engineering 2005 graduate, looked at hydro and geothermal electricity generation but found that it would not be feasible to convert heat into electricity. The process needs water gushing at 250 degrees. He did find that if old well logs were correct, there could be enough pressure from a new well to drive a turbine for hydropower.

Iames focused on solar and wind power, neither of which proved economically feasible at Sleeping Buffalo--much to the surprise of the local audience. The resort is too far north for solar power, which is too costly to implement. Wind-generated power could work if combined with hydropower.

"I wanted all the answers, which I didn't get, yet it was rewarding to see the students handle tough questions professionally," said Anne Boothe, the executive director of PhillCo, an economic development group in Phillips County. "Most of what I wanted to know was not within the scope of their preliminary study. We hope for more research on the viability of wind energy, fish farming, greenhouses for flowers and vegetables and other uses for natural resources including natural gas in the region."

While some may have come away from the meeting disappointed in the preliminary study, all recognized the need for more research.

Next, says Finlayson, the resort owner could apply for federal grants or loans for a new well, in order to exploit geothermal energy resources and wake the sleeping buffalo.

Contact: Doug Cairns dcairns@me.montana.edu or (406) 994-6050 or Roger Ereaux, (406) 527-3370