The U.S. has directed huge investments toward solar and wind power projects in a bid to rapidly develop its renewable energy industry. But this is not the only green potential America is setting its sights on, with a surge in interest in geothermal power over the last few years. As governments worldwide work to achieve carbon-cutting targets by curbing their reliance on fossil fuels and boosting renewable energy output, geothermal power could provide the energy needed for the U.S. to make a faster transition to green.
So, what is geothermal energy and how is it used in the U.S.? There are a variety of geothermal energy systems including direct use and district heating systems, geothermal power plants, and geothermal heat pumps, that use either the earth’s high temperatures near the surface or drill miles down to access higher temperatures. Geothermal energy can be used for heating or cooling purposes, as well as being used to generate clean electricity, using high or medium temperature resources from tectonically active regions of the world.
The Department of Energy (DoE) is backing geothermal energy in a big way, announcing a $44 million grant for the advancement of enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). The DoE’s Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) announced the funding opportunity for innovation in EGS. This opportunity plans to roll out more geothermal projects countrywide to heat and cool houses and provide clean electricity. Most U.S. geothermal resources are only accessible through using man-made EGS reservoirs, rather than through naturally occurring hot water or steam. This means that the sector requires a high level of investment in the technology needed to access the energy source. It is hoped that greater investment in this field will support the government’s climate goals.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm explained “The United States has incredible, untapped potential for clean geothermal power to help meet our energy needs with a round-the-clock resource available across the country.” She added, “These new investments at FORGE, the flagship of our EGS research, can help us find the most innovative, cost-effective solutions and accelerate our work toward wide-scale geothermal deployment and support President Biden’s ambitious climate goals.”
And the government’s new energy bill is also expected to help more geothermal projects get off the ground. Last month, the House of Representatives passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes a climate section aimed at boosting renewable energy production. The new legislation encourages investment in green energy initiatives as well as supporting consumers looking to make their homes greener. Estimates suggest that solar, wind, nuclear power, geothermal energy, and hydropower could provide up to 81 percent of the country’s electricity by 2030 if there is greater investment in the sector.
Now, innovative companies are looking to repurpose end-of-life oil and gas wells in both the USA and the U.K. for use in geothermal developments. CeraPhi Energy announced this summer that it had entered into a drilling and intervention services agreement with drilling firm Halliburton to repurpose disused oil and gas wells for geothermal energy production. The companies will use CeraPhiWell™ technology, a closed loop downhole heat exchanger that draws up subsurface heat for different applications for scalable baseload energy, to add over 500GW of additional geothermal energy by 2050.
While several energy companies are expanding their energy operations into geothermal, there is also a multitude of startups across the U.S. entering the market with innovative approaches to renewable energy sources. As interest in geothermal energy development is increasing, many young companies believe they can add greater value to the sector by using innovative technologies and digital support for the sector.
Houston’s Fervo Energy recently announced that it had raided $138 million in funding to build, own, and operate geothermal plants in Nevada and Utah, as well as evaluating sites in California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, New Mexico, and internationally. Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo, stated “Power buyers are interested in geothermal power because they are actively looking for reliable energy sources that can address climate change and rising energy prices,” adding, “our mission is to meet that growing demand by putting gigawatts of 24/7 carbon-free energy on the grid. This latest investment enables us to execute on those ambitious plans.”
In Utah, Zanskar, a data-analysis startup founded in 2019, is constructing a software model for geothermal wells, providing insight into reservoir volume, rock density, and magnetic fields, to identify the production potential. It sells data to developers, providing them with a better understanding of where to dig and the risks involved with different locations. Chris Sacca, the managing partner of investor Lowercarbon Capital, explains “There’s enough energy in the Earth’s crust to power billions of electric vehicles, heat pumps, and data centers, if only we could locate it… Enter Zanskar.”
As the U.S. government provides a better policy climate for the development of renewable energy operations beyond the more traditional wind and solar, investments in geothermal energy and other green energy forms are likely to increase. In addition, greater innovation from startups and funding from energy majors could see geothermal energy providing a large proportion of U.S. energy within the next few decades.
Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.
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