Is Enhanced Geothermal A Missing Piece Of America’s Climate Puzzle?

Roughly 200 miles northeast of Reno, a geothermal well named Project Red juts out above the northern Nevada desert. It may not look like much, but it could be a missing piece of America’s climate puzzle.

Last week Fervo Energy announced it successfully operated Project Red over a 30-day test period, generating 3.5 megawatts of clean electricity, more than any other enhanced geothermal plant in the world. Project Red expects to connect to the grid later this summer, delivering 5 megawatts to Google’s Las Vegas data center operations.

It’s small compared to the United States’ clean energy needs, but Project Red could be the start of something huge. The US Department of Energy’s Enhanced Geothermal Shot Analysis predicts enhanced geothermal could reach 90 gigawatts of installed geothermal capacity by 2050, enough to power 65 million US homes.

By using technology commonly used in oil and gas production, enhanced geothermal like Project Red can turn on power generation whenever it’s needed and even store energy for days at a time, basically turning the ground beneath our feet into a giant long-duration battery.

Enhanced geothermal could also start pulling emissions out of the sky. Fervo is planning a direct air capture (DAC) system that removes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere using geothermal energy to power its operations and store that pollution underground in its geothermal reservoirs.

And perhaps best for the US energy transition, enhanced geothermal offers a ready-made career transition for oil and gas workers who have either been laid off in recent boom-bust bankruptcy waves, or who want to use their talents to fight climate change instead of accelerating it.

Geothermal: Powerful But Unused

Geothermal power dates to the early 1900s and is renewable, fueled by inexhaustible heat from Earth’s core. It’s capable of “baseload” power production 24 hours a day, seven days a week regardless of weather patterns. It’s small, using roughly 11% of the land of coal-fired plants. And it’s clean, with life-cycle emissions up to 20 times lower than gas-fired plants.

But it’s hardly used because traditional geothermal plants must be located at specific areas where permeable underground reservoirs, natural or human-made, can produce steam or hot water for use in power generation or heating and cooling. These locations are limited to the Western US, and today geothermal only produces 4 gigawatts nationwide, or 0.4% of total US electricity supply.

Enter enhanced geothermal technology, which can build power plants in far more places than ever before. Horizontal drilling can drill multiple wells into geothermal reservoirs from a single location or reach geothermal reservoirs that were previously inaccessible, reducing its footprint and drilling risks. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) can create and widen cracks within hot rock underground, then add water into the fracked rock, essentially engineering new geothermal reservoirs that can be repeatedly reused.

DOE’s Enhanced Geothermal Shot Analysis indicates enhanced geothermal could catalyze utility-scale electricity production in most of the Western US as well as new states including Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia.

“By applying drilling technology from the oil and gas industry, we have proven that we can produce 24/7 carbon-free energy resources in new geographies across the world,” said Tim Latimer, Fervo Energy CEO and Co-Founder. Fervo recently broke ground on a second project in southwest Utah that could provide 400 megawatts by 2028, enough to power 300,000 homes, and has begun developing several additional sites across the Western US.

Technological Innovations Improve Value To The Grid

Sounds great – so what’s the catch?

As with all nascent technologies, from solar to shale gas, enhanced geothermal needs innovation and deployment to become cost competitive. DOE’s Enhanced Geothermal Shot targets cutting costs 90% to roughly $45 per megawatt-hour through technology advances and policy implementation, at which point it would be in line with many other forms of power generation.

A 2006 study from MIT estimated that $1 billion in investment over 15 years would push enhanced geothermal costs down sufficiently to install 100 gigawatts of new capacity by 2050, but subsequent investments didn’t hit that mark.

New technology like Project Red means enhanced geothermal output can become much more valuable to the grid, especially in the high-renewable scenarios needed to reach US climate targets. Flexibly turning power output off when solar and wind are available and power prices are low, then ramping output up when renewables aren’t producing or demand and power prices are high, could slot enhanced geothermal into the role that gas-fired power plants play today.

In 2022 Princeton University researchers showed enhanced geothermal power plants could store energy for 100 hours or more and rapidly discharge electricity when it’s most needed, exceeding prior value estimates by up to 60%. That same team then ran a series of simulations applying Fervo’s technology across the Western US in 2045, finding enhanced geothermal could supply up to 74 gigawatts of flexible generation, compared to only 28 gigawatts of traditional geothermal. Those plants could also reduce total grid power costs as much as 10%.

“Enhanced geothermal is at the point of crossing the bridge to bankability and then commercial scale,” emailed Ben Serrurier, Fervo Energy Government Affairs and Policy. “So the most important policies are ones that reduce risk as the first large-scale projects are developed.”

An Enhanced Geothermal Future Is Only Real With Smart Policy

The smart policy needed to make enhanced geothermal is similar to many other fledgling energy technologies: long-term policy certainty that sends clear market signals to utilities and developers.

“Enhanced geothermal is a long lead time resource, and especially as the industry gets started it needs far-seeing procurement signals to support project development,” Serrurier emailed. “This is particularly important for widespread deployment in the 2030s when the grid will increasingly need clean firm generation.”

The California Public Utilities Commission’s midterm reliability long lead time procurement order is a good example. It targets a minimum of 2,000 megawatts by 2026 of long-duration storage capacity and firm resources that either have zero emissions or qualify for the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

Smart permitting reform can also spur development, which can take up to 10 years to approve due to laborious permitting requirements. DOE’s GeoVision analysis found regulatory reforms to optimize permitting timelines could double geothermal capacity by 2050.

Three legislative bills signed into law by Colorado Governor Jared Polis in 2022 and 2023 could help enable enhanced geothermal on both fronts by streamlining regulatory review and providing incentives.

Heating Up The Oil And Gas Energy Transition

The upside of getting policy right on enhanced geothermal is much higher than cleaning up the grid and cutting consumer costs.

Fossil fuel companies have a long history of boom-bust cycles categorized by bankruptcies and layoffs: oil and gas companies have roughly 700,000 fewer workers today than in 2017, while clean energy jobs grew faster than the overall economy in 2022.

Fervo CEO Tim Latimer embodies this trend: He was a drilling engineer for mining company BHP, but grew concerned about climate change, read that 2006 MIT paper, understood fracking solved many of enhanced geothermal’s challenges, and realized the market opportunity.

Earth’s Hot Core Could Cool Our Air

But enhanced geothermal’s biggest climate contribution could be carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

The atmospheric concentration of CO2 now exceeds 420 parts per million, 50% higher than the 280ppm level during the 10,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, and far above the scientifically accepted “safe” limit of 350ppm. By 2100, the United Nations says we’ll need to remove 100-1,000 billion tons of CO2 to prevent dangerous climate change roughly 10 to 100 times China’s annual emissions.

Direct air capture (DAC), a technology that pulls emissions out of the air and pumps it underground for storage, is one of the most promising ways to draw down greenhouse gases. But DAC requires a massive amount of electricity and heat, which must come from clean energy to avoid accelerating climate change. Solar and wind aren’t a good fit because they produce power but not heat.

However, enhanced geothermal produces large amounts of electricity and waste heat, at roughly the same temperature needed to pipe CO2 underground. A 2019 study from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Colorado School of Mines, and University of Illinois projected that combining DAC with all the existing US geothermal plants could remove nearly 13 million tons of CO2 annually.

Climeworks, which has the world’s first operational DAC facility in Iceland, built its facility atop an existing geothermal plant. Fervo’s combined facility could be online within three to five years, using geothermal electricity and heat to power DAC then store the CO2 underground in geothermal reservoirs.

Drilling Down To Slow Climate Change

Enhanced geothermal could produce massive amounts of new clean electricity 24/7, supply energy storage that can turn on whenever the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, and provide a tailor-made clean career for oil and gas workers.

But technological innovations like Project Red won’t reach that goal. Smart policy is needed to help ensure enhanced geothermal is the clean energy Swiss Army knife that could overcome climate change’s trickiest technological needs.

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