In a wind turbine and solar panel-filled valley in western Utah, Tim Latimer observed a distinct device that he believes could be as influential, if not more, in the fight against climate change. Surprisingly, it was a drilling rig transplanted from the oil fields of North Dakota. However, instead of seeking fossil fuels, this unobtrusive rig was drilling for heat.
Mr. Latimer’s company, Fervo Energy, is part of a bold endeavor to tap into the substantial reserves of geothermal energy found deep within the Earth’s hot interior. Scientists believe that this renewable energy source has the potential to displace the use of fossil fuels and thereby mitigate global warming.
According to Mr. Latimer, there is an almost unlimited resource waiting to be harnessed beneath the Earth’s surface. Geothermal energy has the advantage of requiring minimal land and producing no emissions, making it a valuable complement to wind and solar power. Many who explore geothermal energy become captivated by its possibilities.
The Potential of Geothermal Power
Conventional geothermal plants have been in operation for decades, using natural hot water reservoirs beneath the ground to generate electricity consistently. However, suitable conditions for such plants are rare. This has limited geothermal’s current contribution to a mere 0.4 percent of America’s electricity production, according to The New York Times.
Nonetheless, potentially rich reserves of hot, dry rocks lie beneath the Earth’s surface worldwide. By leveraging advanced drilling techniques pioneered by the oil and gas industry, experts believe it is feasible to tap into this larger heat reservoir and create geothermal energy practically anywhere.
The implications are substantial: According to the Energy Department, the energy contained within these rocks is sufficient to power the entire country five times over. In response, the Energy Department has initiated a significant effort to develop technologies for harnessing this abundant heat.
Numerous geothermal companies have emerged with innovative concepts for achieving this goal.
Applying Oil Industry Techniques to Geothermal Power
Fervo is using fracking techniques, similar to those employed in the oil and gas industry, to fracture dry, hot rock and inject water into the resulting fractures. This process creates artificial geothermal reservoirs.
Meanwhile, Eavor, a Canadian start-up, is constructing large underground radiators using drilling methods pioneered in Alberta’s oil sands. Other visionaries envision using plasma or energy waves to drill even deeper and tap into “superhot” temperatures, which could provide clean power to numerous coal-fired power plants by substituting steam for coal.
However, challenges to the expansion of geothermal energy loom. Investors are cautious about the cost and risks associated with innovative geothermal projects. Concerns about water usage and earthquakes resulting from drilling also persist. Additionally, geothermal energy receives less federal support compared to other technologies.
Despite these obstacles, there is growing interest in geothermal energy due to drilling advancements in the oil industry. Technological advancements like horizontal drilling and magnetic sensing have propelled oil and gas production to unprecedented levels. These innovations can be adapted for geothermal energy.
While wind and solar power are rapidly expanding, they depend on fossil fuels like natural gas as backup when the sun sets and wind subsides. Finding a substitute for gas is a pressing climate challenge, and geothermal energy remains one of the few viable options.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, acknowledged that geothermal energy has historically been overlooked but emphasized its extraordinary potential with innovation.
New Drilling at the Blundell Plant
Located near Milford, Utah, the Blundell geothermal plant serves as a fascinating example of how the geothermal industry is making fracking eco-friendly.
This plant, established in 1984, powers 31,000 homes. It uses naturally porous rocks beneath the surface to allow for the percolation of groundwater, resulting in steam that generates electricity.
However, this unique geology is not common throughout the region, as much of the underground hot rock consists of hard granite with limited water flow.
In an effort to tap into this granite, two separate teams, Utah FORGE and Fervo, have employed similar methodologies. This involves drilling deep wells shaped like a letter “L”, extending both vertically and horizontally into the hot granite.
Next, fracking techniques are applied. To create a network of fissures between the wells, workers use controlled explosives and high-pressure fluids. Water is then injected into one well in hopes that it will migrate through these fissures, heat up to temperatures exceeding 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and ultimately emerge from the other well.
Referred to as “enhanced geothermal,” this method has posed engineering challenges since the 1970s. However, recent developments have shown promising results.
Earlier this summer, FORGE announced a successful transfer of water between two wells. Shortly afterward, Fervo demonstrated through a 30-day test in Nevada that sufficient heat for electricity production can be achieved. As a result, Fervo is actively drilling wells for their inaugural 400-megawatt commercial power plant in Utah, adjacent to the FORGE site.
According to Lauren Boyd, the head of the Energy Department’s Geothermal Technologies Office, these breakthroughs have happened faster than expected. According to the Department’s estimates, geothermal power has the potential to contribute 12 percent of America’s electricity by 2050, provided that technology continues to advance.
Image Source: Cyrus S, https://shorturl.at/bEV19