Geothermal Energy Is Having A Magic Moment, This Time For Real — CleanTechnica Interview
The geothermal energy industry has never realized its true potential in the US, despite the seemingly magical promise of nonstop, 24/7 renewable energy sitting just below the surface of the Earth. However, it seems like things are finally starting to gel. No, for real! For the inside scoop on the prospects for a geothermal revolution CleanTechnica sought out Nneka Uzoh, the director of energy innovation at the climate-tech accelerator Elemental Excelerator.
Geothermal Energy & Elemental Excelerator
Elemental Excelerator popped up on the CleanTechnica radar because it is one of the backers behind the geothermal energy startup Fervo Energy. The company has also caught the eyeball of the US Department of Energy and the now-familiar Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which is also dipping into green hydrogen, fuel cell aircraft, and air batteries among other ventures.
Elemental Excelerator has been focusing on Hawaii, California and the Asia Pacific, but for its next cohort it is expanding across the globe with a worldwide search for innovators emphasizing equity and access.
“We are looking for passionate, diverse teams from around the world who are committed to solving climate change, addressing social inequities both in their companies and through their work, and playing an active role in our community of peer entrepreneurs,” Elemental explains.
Wait, What About Fervo?
Where were we? Oh right, Fervo Energy. We were thinking that Elemental’s interest in Fervo could provide some general insights regarding the potential for geothermal growth in the US and elsewhere, and Nneka Uzoh was happy to oblige (the following comments edited for clarity and flow).
“A lot of what we’re looking at is drive by market need and what can be scaled,” Uzoh explained. “The other part is focused on supporting [the technology] with partners in utilities, cities and towns. So, it has to be at the commercialization stage.”
“There is no shortage of geothermal solutions and many of them are academically and technically advanced but the cost is incredibly high. They are capital intensive and require a great number of stakeholders, so they are not the best fit for us,” she said, “But Fervo stood out because they were a startup that was quick as relates to rollout.”
Uzoh cited the company’s existing leases for geothermal development, its partnerships with current wells, and its plans for additional locations as deciding factors. The company has developed software that enables it to perform more effective assessments. Its potential for exploiting existing wells that are underused or under-performing also caught Elemental’s attention.
“For a [relatively] small amount of money you can all of a sudden make it more productive,” Uzoh said.
Another interesting aspect of the firm is its role in transferring valuable fossil energy skills and know-how into the renewable energy field. As Uzoh noted, Fervo co-founder and CEO Tim Latimer comes from the oil and gas industry, having initially parlayed a degree in mechanical engineering into a job as a drilling engineer based out of Houston.
A growing interest in climate action soon led him to geothermal energy. Uzoh pointed out that Latimer’s background provides him with the advantage of supply chain and workforce experience that can help transition fossil workers into good-paying renewable energy jobs.
Scaling Up For Geothermal Energy Dominance
If you caught that thing about scaling up, that’s the key. Geothermal energy is in a similar situation to pumped hydro energy storage, in that the the potential for scaling up is hampered by a reliance on site-specific infrastructure and engineering.
The Energy Department has been seeking out modular solutions that lower the cost of pumped hydro, and geothermal is also on the list for cost-cutting through standardization and modularization.
The idea is to move the industry into an area called enhanced geothermal systems, which refers to the use of human-made reservoirs instead of relying on naturally occurring formations. Natural formations are limited by geography, but reservoir-based systems could be constructed practically all over the country.
In yet another example of the deep state at work, during the Obama administration DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office launched something it called Utah FORGE, for Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, with a total of five projects aimed at enhanced geothermal systems. During the Trump administration, FORGE took more concrete shape with a dedicated R&D site and research team. Now, mere weeks into the Biden administration, FORGE reached a milestone with the drilling of its first well.
Apparently FORGE is the Geothermal Office’s largest initiative ever, which explains a bit of over-the-top excitement when they enthused over the well-drilling operation last month:
“After years of planning, team building, and site preparation, the FORGE team, led by researchers at the University of Utah, launched its much-anticipated drilling phase at the Utah FORGE site last fall. Cutting-edge geothermal projects like FORGE can unlock access to a domestic, low-carbon, clean energy source with the potential to supply power to tens of millions of homes in the United States.”
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a pretty tall order. According to our friends over at the Census Bureau, there are about 121 million households in the US, or about 140 million housing units.
Nevertheless, you have to start somewhere. Utah FORGE aims at establishing an “unprecedented scale of research that could pivot the geothermal industry toward a real reduction in geothermal energy development costs,” and it is leaning on the oil and gas industry for much of the heavy lifting.
Next Steps For Geothermal Energy In The US
So far, so good. Utah FORGE completed that first well in only half the expected time, deploying new tools and strategies that could be replicated elsewhere. The well also yielded 74 feet of new core samples that will be made available to researchers.
Don’t just take our word for it. Check out the Utah FORGE website for all the details.
Meanwhile, next steps are already in the works. On February 24 the DOE announced a new $46 million round of funding for 17 enhanced geothermal energy research projects through FORGE.
Among the awardees are Fervo Energy and the University of Texas at Austin, which are tasked with “stimulation and configuration” of the FORGE well, and perhaps additional wells that come down the pike.
That makes Fervo one of only three private sector awardees. Two other Texas firms, Welltec and PetroQuip Energy Services, will be tackling other aspects of the FORGE project, apparently with an eye toward applying oil and gas expertise to geothermal wells.
In another sign of how oil and gas expertise is accelerating activity in the geothermal energy field, earlier this year Fervo announced a new partnership leveraging Organic Rankine Cycle technology from the firm Turboden, which is part of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries group.
Uzoh, for one, is encouraged by the growing level of investor interest in new geothermal solutions.
“It’s no secret that hydrocarbon extraction is going the way of the dinosaurs, and cash heavy businesses are trying to find a way to stay in business,” she noted. “Hopefully a rising tide lifts all ships. One of the challenges with geothermal is the level of technical complexity, including mineral rights and the rights around steam and water; now all of these companies are thinking about this in meaningful ways.”
As for the big picture, Uzoh suggests that clean kilowatts are a means, not an end. The next big challenge will be “building smart cities and not just electrifying dumb cities,” so stay tuned for more on that.
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Image (cropped): Enhanced geothermal energy systems courtesy of US Department of Energy.