Fervo Energy announced on February 23 that it will design and engineer a fully integrated geothermal and direct air capture facility with financial support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Direct air capture offers a way to remove some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help limit global heating. As of this moment, while the technology theoretically exists, it has never been proven effective at anywhere near the scale or cost that will be needed to significantly alter the Earth’s trajectory toward a climate so hot that humans will not be able to survive. Fervo hopes to change all that.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C will require the removal of up to 1000 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2100. That could create a significant demand for carbon removal solutions, like direct air capture.
In a direct air capture facility, large fans blow ambient air over materials that capture carbon dioxide. The captured carbon dioxide is then heated, concentrated, and and in most cases pumped underground. To operate economically and sustainably, DAC requires a reliable source of carbon free electricity and heat. Fervo’s designs for a combined geothermal and direct air capture facility can provide an innovative solution to these challenges that it says will lower the cost of carbon removal.
“Geothermal can deliver the carbon-free power and heat needed to make DAC a viable means for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo. “With robust expertise in geosciences and new support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Fervo is well positioned to drive innovation in carbon removal and demonstrate the natural alignment between geothermal and DAC.”
As part of its next generation geothermal technology, Fervo has adapted existing innovations such as horizontal drilling and distributed fiber optic sensing to combat climate change by turning reservoirs of hot rock beneath the earth’s surface into economically viable sources of clean energy. The new funding will enable Fervo to leverage geothermal resources to provide 24/7 carbon-free power and heat to DAC systems and explore geothermal reservoirs’ potential for local subsurface carbon sequestration.
This funding builds on CZI’s support for organizations that are advancing promising climate change solutions, including carbon dioxide removal. “Carbon removal technologies are a critical tool for addressing climate change,” said CZI Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Caitlyn Fox. “In order to scale carbon removal, costs need to come down dramatically. Fervo’s unique integration of next generation geothermal technology with direct air capture creates exciting opportunities to develop rigorous carbon removal at a lower cost while providing a reliable, abundant, carbon free source of power and heat.”
Temperatures at the Earth’s core are estimated to be around 11,000 degrees F. A geothermal well doesn’t need to go down more than a mile or two to find temperatures that are close to 1,000 degrees F. Pump water down the well and it turns into superheated steam which is perfect for powering turbines to make electricity. The waste steam cools to around 212º F, which happens to be exactly the right temperature needed to pull carbon dioxide out of an air filter so it can be concentrated and then sequestered.
Hélène Pilorgé, a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies carbon dioxide removal, told the Washington Post one of the principal ways to remove carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is known as the “solid sorbent” method. Big fans draw air into a box with an air filter; the air filter is then heated to around 212 degrees to remove the CO2. The high temperature “fits well with the energy that geothermal can provide,” Pilorgé said.
She added that the energy needed for direct air capture is about 80% heat and 20% electricity. According to one study co-authored by Pilorgé, if direct air capture were combined with all of the geothermal plants currently in the United States, they could suck could around 12.8 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. That sounds like a lot until you realize the US emits almost 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. In other words, even if the Fervo technology is wildly successful, its impact on the nation’s climate emissions won’t amount to a pisshole in the snow. America has to stop pumping all that carbon pollution into the air or we are all well on the way to extinction.
Ia Direct Air Capture A Distraction?
The Washington Post dares to suggest that the highest and best use of geothermal power is to make zero carbon electricity. Forget all the carbon capture mumbo jumbo. Unlike wind and solar, geothermal power is constant all day every day, much like a nuclear power plant but without the enormous costs and waste disposal concerns.
Latimer is optimistic in the face of such concerns. He says Fervo facilities could produce electricity when needed and suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere when wind and solar are dominating the grid. But right now, he added, it’s hard to link geothermal to the electricity grid thanks to long waits to get connected.
Government policy considerations also come into play. There is much more funding available for direct air capture than there is for geothermal. The Energy Department is offering up to $74 million for demonstration projects of new geothermal technologies, but a whopping $3.5 billion to establish regional hubs for direct air capture. “What we have here is a really compelling way to produce round-the-clock carbon-free electricity and heat,” Latimer says. “The question is what society prioritizes and what policy incentives are put in place.”
So far, direct air capture has shown lots of promise but few benefits in the real world. ClimeWorks has a demonstration facility in operation in Iceland, but the costs are still outrageously high if you start multiplying them by the billions of tons needed to have any real impact on our global overheating problem. And while the DOE may be putting up $3.5 billion to fund direct air capture research, the EPA is about to sign off on a deepwater oil and gas terminals in the Gulf of Mexico that will help add 24 billion tons of new carbon emissions to the already overburdened environment. The government giveth and the government taketh away.
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