Today, we had a greatly appreciated full day to rest our rears in White Sulfur Springs. Yesterday was easily our longest day in the saddle so far, and at just under sixty miles, my longest day of cycling ever. Getting here from Harlowton was somewhat of a struggle for many of us, especially with the strong headwinds in the afternoon. Even so, everyone arrived triumphant, ready for a warm soak in the soothing and natural hot springs at the local motel spa.
After one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had all summer (not to mention the first morning of the trip without a wake-up call) we had the opportunity to meet with Gene Gudmundson, owner and operator of the Spa Hot Springs Motel and Clinic (which is also the site of his chiropractic and acupuncture practice). Gene is boastfully proud of his business, and with very good reason. Before Europeans settled here, White Sulfur Springs was part of a valley of peaceful cohabitation for constantly warring native tribes who came to soak up the healing minerals of the springs. Gene told us he sees himself as the keeper of one of Earth’s most cherished utilities and he aims to create a similarly peaceful environment for his guests, who rest assured they are soaking in nature’s purest mineral water. He even drains and cleans his tubs daily.
Until this year, Gene was the only business owner in Montana using solar, wind, and geothermal energy. He recently had to retire his fourteen year old wind turbine because it was too difficult to keep up with the maintenance requirements and difficulty of acquiring parts for older and similar turbines.
Geothermal energy accounts for more than half of the energy the motel uses. Because it is pumped from the ground on-site, Gene’s business maintains a high level of energy independence. The original thirty foot deep well surfaces water a little over one hundred degrees, while a newer well reaches water two hundred feet beneath the ground which surfaces at one hundred thirty degrees. Besides its utilization in the spa, geothermal energy from the spring water is used to heat a small portion of municipal water, which is used in the motel faucets. During the entire process, only three to five degrees of heat is lost from the spring water, and every ounce is eventually returned to a nearby creek. Gene claims the water would eventually have surfaced the anyway, making his one of the most efficient and least invasive energy systems imaginable.
In a small town in the middle of rural Montana, Gene’s spa is one of the only year-round attractions for out-of-towners. As passionate as he is about his energy system, he is in a unique position to educate dozens of patrons on a weekly basis about investing in local renewables. The icing on Gene’s multi-layered cake of geothermal energy throughout the community. At the beginning of his presentation he told us with giddy excitement that there was a big surprise coming. As it turns out, he is getting ready to add pipes to the system which will transport the spring water to the high school a few hundred yards away before returning it to the creek. The new add-on will account for most of the electricity used at the high school, and similar plans are being discussed with regards to the elementary school next door. By the way, Gene is installing the system and giving the schools access to his wells for free.
It was clear from talking with Gene that he has some business savvy, but more importantly that he sees himself primarily as a public servant. His philosophy of sharing the wealth he has found in the natural world with his community resonates strongly as a crucial aspect of solving the energy crisis. It’s just a shame geothermal is not a viable option everywhere, because I’m pretty sure solar panels and wind turbines will never be this refreshing.