HomeScienceTools Born From Fracking Fuel Geothermal Rush

Tools Born From Fracking Fuel Geothermal Rush

In a sagebrush valley in western Utah, surrounded by wind turbines and solar panels, Tim Latimer contemplated a drilling rig as a potential solution in the fight against climate change. This drilling rig, originally from North Dakota’s oil fields, was being used to extract heat instead of fossil fuels. Latimer’s company, Fervo Energy, is part of a larger effort to harness geothermal energy, a renewable power source that could replace fossil fuels.

Geothermal plants traditionally tap into natural hot water reservoirs underground to generate electricity. However, suitable sites for these plants are limited, resulting in geothermal power only contributing 0.4 percent of America’s electricity. Nevertheless, experts believe that by using advanced drilling techniques developed by the oil and gas industry, it is possible to access the greater heat potential from hot, dry rocks beneath the Earth’s surface. The US Department of Energy estimates that there is enough energy in these rocks to power the entire country five times over and has therefore initiated efforts to develop technologies for harnessing this heat.

Numerous geothermal companies have emerged with various innovative ideas. Fervo Energy, for instance, employs fracking techniques to crack open hot rocks and create artificial geothermal reservoirs. Another start-up, Eavor, is constructing underground radiators using drilling methods pioneered in Alberta’s oil sands. Moreover, some scientists envision the use of plasma or energy waves to drill even deeper and tap into “superhot” temperatures that could potentially replace coal-fired power plants with steam-generated power.

Nevertheless, there are obstacles to the expansion of geothermal energy. Investors are cautious about the costs and risks associated with novel geothermal projects, and concerns about water use and earthquakes from drilling persist. Moreover, geothermal power receives less federal support compared to other technologies. Nonetheless, the growing interest in geothermal energy stems from the advancements in drilling technology since the 2000s. Innovations like horizontal drilling and magnetic sensing, albeit controversial from an environmental standpoint, can be adapted for geothermal projects. Since drilling makes up a significant portion of the costs, the application of these innovations can potentially reduce the expenses of geothermal projects.

States like California, in particular, are actively seeking clean energy sources that can generate power consistently. Despite the rapid growth of wind and solar power, these sources still rely on natural gas for backup when sunlight and wind are scarce. Finding an alternative to natural gas is a pressing climate challenge, and geothermal energy is considered a viable option. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, acknowledging geothermal’s historical oversight, believes that with innovation, the potential of geothermal energy is remarkable.

In Utah, various projects are underway to tap into the potential of geothermal energy. Both the Utah FORGE project, funded by the Department of Energy, and Fervo Energy are using similar methods to extract heat from hot granite rocks underground. By drilling wells in the shape of giant L’s and using fracking techniques to create cracks, water can be injected to circulate heat between the wells. These breakthroughs in enhanced geothermal technology have prompted optimism within the industry, with estimates suggesting that geothermal energy could supply 12 percent of America’s electricity by 2050.

One challenge now is to make enhanced geothermal energy more affordable. The Department of Energy aims to decrease costs to $45 per megawatt-hour for widespread deployment. Although Fervo Energy’s costs are currently higher than this target, continuous drilling efforts are expected to reduce expenses. Research at the Utah FORGE project also seeks to make projects more cost-effective by drilling deeper and into hotter rocks. However, new tools are required since existing oil and gas equipment were not designed for such high temperatures.

The enhanced geothermal industry also faces challenges related to underground geology, such as the creation of fractures that retain heat over time and avoiding triggering earthquakes. Nonetheless, interest in geothermal energy is on the rise, especially in California. The state, grappling with electricity shortages, recently extended the lifespan of polluting gas plants and is now pursuing additional clean energy sources that can operate continuously. Fervo Energy’s Utah plant has already gained the support of Clean Power Alliance, which will purchase 33 megawatts of electricity from the plant. Geothermal energy is seen as a promising solution to address nighttime energy needs when wind and solar power are not readily available.

In conclusion, geothermal energy presents significant potential as a renewable power source that can reduce reliance on fossil fuels. With advancements in drilling technology and innovative techniques, companies like Fervo Energy are making progress in accessing geothermal heat from hot rocks underground. However, challenges regarding costs, water use, earthquakes, and permitting still remain. Despite these obstacles, the increasing interest in geothermal energy reflects the urgency to find sustainable and reliable sources of electricity.