Fervo Energy is using horizontal drilling techniques perfected by the oil and gas industry to access subterranean areas where temperatures are hot enough to make superheated steam. That steam is then used to spin turbines that make electricity. The drilling can be expensive, but once a source of underground heat is tapped, the energy to heat the steam is free for as long as the heat source lasts.
That makes geothermal electricity another form of zero emission renewable energy that will be virtually inexhaustible, at least until the Earth cools in a few billion years. Once the systems are in place to tap the sunshine or wind or underground heat, there is no fuel cost to make electricity. While horizontal drilling at depths of 6000 feet or more is not cheap, it is much less expensive than constructing a new nuclear power plant and can be completed before your grand kids finish college and start families of their own.
Fervo Project Red Begins Making Electricity
Fervo, which is partially funded by Google, started drilling its first test holes at a site in Nevada last summer. This week, it announced it had started generating electricity at the site, known as Project Red. The 3.5 megawatt facility is now supplying power directly to the Las Vegas–based utility NV Energy. Google operates several power hungry server farms in Nevada. The success of the pilot project is a significant step forward in the growing global effort to harness the Earth’s heat, according to Canary Media.
In the United States, geothermal energy supplies only about 3,700 megawatts (3.7 gigawatts) of electricity, or 0.4 percent of US electricity generation last year. According to the US Department of Energy, geothermal could provide 90 gigawatts of firm and flexible power to America’s grid by 2050 — assuming that enhanced systems like Fervo’s catch on as a widespread renewable energy option.
Fervo’s project has a relatively small capacity — enough to power roughly 2,600 U.S. homes. Still, that’s more electricity than any of the world’s roughly 40 enhanced geothermal systems have achieved previously, according to the company.
Google said it signed its agreement with Fervo Energy in May 2021 as part of a larger strategy to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. In 2020, it set a target of operating all of its data centers and office campuses worldwide on “24/7 carbon free energy” by 2030, a goal that requires not just purchasing renewable power but also accelerating the development of innovative energy technologies.
“When we began our partnership with Fervo, we knew that a first-of-a-kind project like this would require a wide range of technical and operational innovations,” Michael Terrell, Google’s senior director of energy and climate, wrote in a November 28 blog post. “The result is a geothermal plant that can produce round-the-clock [carbon-free energy] using less land than other clean energy sources,” he said, adding that Google “worked closely with Fervo to overcome obstacles and prove that this technology can work.” Google declined to share financial details about its agreement with Fervo or the cost of the electricity that Project Red is producing.
Geothermal Is Available Everywhere
Geothermal resources are available virtually everywhere underground, representing a potentially vast supply of clean electricity and industrial heat. Yet most of those resources are too deep or technically complicated to access in a cost effective way using traditional methods. Fervo, which has raised more than $180 million since 2017, is among dozens of companies in the U.S. and worldwide that are working to develop easier and cheaper ways of unleashing the potential of geothermal energy.
It uses horizontal drilling techniques and fiber optic sensing tools perfected by the oil and gas industries. Technicians create fractures in hard, impermeable rocks found far below earth’s surface, then pump the fractures full of water and working fluids. The super-hot rocks heat those liquids, eventually producing steam that is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. The idea is to create geothermal reservoirs in places where naturally occurring resources aren’t available.
In recent years, enhanced geothermal projects in a handful of other countries were shut down after triggering earthquakes and rattling surrounding cities. Since then, companies have stepped up efforts to monitor and mitigate induced seismicity. Fervo said it had adopted a protocol developed by the Department of Energy to avoid causing seismic events at its project sites. It began drilling in Humboldt County, Nevada in early 2022. Project Red was initially anticipated to be a 5 megawatt facility that would come online in 2022, but technical challenges led to a revision in that plan.
At the Project Red site, two wells reach 7,700 feet deep and then connect with horizontal conduits stretching some 3,250 feet on either side. Fervo’s team fills the project’s artificial reservoir with liquid, where it can reach temperatures of up to 376 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, Fervo announced that it successfully completed a full scale well test in Nevada that confirmed the commercial viability of its next generation technology. Roughly four months later, its first power plant is officially up and running.
“We did what we set out to do,” Sarah Jewett, Fervo’s vice president of strategy, said in an email to Canary Media. “We proved our drilling technology, established Project Red as the most produced enhanced geothermal system in history, and delivered carbon free electrons to the grid at a time when competing clean, firm energy developers have struggled to execute their projects,” she said.
The High Cost Of New Technology
To boost America’s geothermal capacity, the DOE has set a goal of slashing the cost of power from enhanced geothermal systems to $45 per megawatt-hour by 2035 — a 90 percent drop from today’s prices. Fervo currently produces power at a “significantly” higher cost than the DOE’s target, Tim Latimer, the company’s CEO, told Utility Dive in July. Still, he said the startup remains on track to hit $45/MWh in the coming years as it scales its technology.
Fervo is already beginning to work on a 400 megawatt geothermal power plant in Beaver County, Utah called Cape Station. This summer, Fervo began drilling the first of what will become 100 geothermal wells for the project, which is expected to start delivering 24/7 electricity to the grid in 2026 and reach full-scale production in 2028, Jewett said. “It represents quite a big step for geothermal, and it’s going to be really important for energy development going forward,” Fervo CEO and co-founder Tim Latimer told Canary Media in July.
Google, for its part, said it will continue working with Fervo and other companies to accelerate the commercialization of advanced clean energy technologies. In September, the tech giant formed a partnership with Project InnerSpace, a nonprofit that aims to expand the use of geothermal energy worldwide. Google said it will lend its data and software capabilities to help develop a tool for mapping and assessing global geothermal resources.
“For geothermal to grow over the coming decades, we need big players with global scale and breakthrough technological solutions focused on this massive clean energy resource beneath us,” Jamie Beard, executive director of Project InnerSpace, said in an earlier statement about the Google partnership.
First of all, if you are going to raise a fuss about how this new technology is too expensive to be competitive, stop. It wasn’t so long ago that wind and solar were too expensive and look how that turned out. Second, deep geothermal has the potential to provide a constant supply of clean energy all day every day, regardless of weather, with no need for battery backup.
Third, it uses techniques perfected by the oil and gas industries, which means it will have employment possibilities for workers who might be displaced by the clean energy revolution. Fourth, it has a relatively small footprint per unit of energy produced compared to either wind or solar installations. A smaller footprint means fewer NIMBY objections to overcome.
There are all sorts of schemes to tap supposedly inexhaustible supplies of clean energy — giant mirrors in space, building a dam across the Bay of Fundy, or millions of tiny generators powered by ocean waves. All of them are technically feasible. Some are even affordable.
But the temperature of the Earth’s core is over 5,000 degrees C and has been for billions of years. Tapping into some of that heat seems like a smart thing to do in order to power human civilization without destroying the environment. Using steam to spin generators is proven technology.
The only difference with deep geothermal energy from Fervo Energy is the source of the heat to make that steam. One way spews massive quantities of climate warming gases into the atmosphere, the other does not. If you ruled the world, which would you choose?
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