Fracking for heat: Utah could become home to world’s largest enhanced geothermal plant

Beaver County’s Cape Station expects to begin pumping out continuous power in 2026.

(Fervo Energy) The Cape Station enhanced geothermal plant outside Milford is expected to start producing power by summer 2026.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Fervo Energy has announced new financing and technical advances that put the Houston-based company on track to open the world’s largest enhanced geothermal power plant in Beaver County in two years.

The Cape Station plant is scheduled to start producing 90 megawatts of continuous power in 2026, but the plan is to expand to 400 megawatts by 2028, which would put it among the top 10 Utah electricity sources. It would be smaller than the state’s coal plants but larger than any hydroelectric plant in the state, including the Flaming Gorge Dam.

“Were it not for transmission limitations, Cape Station could supply even more power,” said Chelsea Anderson, strategic communications specialist for Fervo. “We believe that Cape has at least 2 gigawatts of geothermal potential.”

It also will be “dispatchable” power, which the Utah Legislature has made a priority. By varying the amount of water pumped through the system, the plant can produce power on demand or shut down when intermittent sources like solar and wind are producing.

So far, none of the plant’s power has been sold to Utah utilities. Anderson said the company has current agreements for 53 megawatts, all with California customers.

“Demand continues to skyrocket,” Anderson added, “for clean, firm power” in the Golden State.

The Department of Energy says enhanced geothermal has the potential of powering 65 million homes and businesses in the U.S.

“Demand for around-the-clock clean energy has never been higher, and next-generation geothermal is uniquely positioned to meet this demand,” Tim Latimer, Fervo CEO and co-founder, said in a recent statement. “Our technology is fully de-risked, our pricing is already competitive, and our resource pipeline is vast. This investment enables Fervo to continue to position geothermal at the heart of 24/7 carbon-free energy production.”

Another geothermal lab nearby

Fervo’s project 10 miles north of Milford follows on the work of Utah FORGE less than a mile away.

Utah FORGE (Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy) is a University of Utah-run laboratory funded by the DOE to develop enhanced geothermal technology. The U.S. agency has invested more than $200 million in FORGE, which has made its results public to encourage enhanced geothermal development.

There are a number of power plants that currently run on geothermal energy, but they exist only where hot springs carry water to the surface. Enhanced geothermal energy is produced by drilling into solid rock. It is heated by underground magma sources but has no water flowing through.

Using techniques perfected by the oil and gas industry like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), geothermal producers drill two wells into the rock. They then frack to open up cracks in the rock so cold water can be pumped down and hot water comes back up. The water is hot enough to drive a turbine to produce electricity. It also can be operated as a closed loop, meaning the same water can be used repeatedly.

Faster drilling

Earlier this year, Fervo said it had drilled its latest Cape Station well into the solid granite in 21 days, which is 70% faster than the first test wells it drilled in 2022. The faster drill times mean lower costs. For the first 90-megawatt phase, the company expects to drill 20 to 24 wells more than two miles long.

“We drill roughly 8,000 feet deep and 5,000 feet horizontally,” said Anderson. She said the company expects to “flow-test” the system, meaning producing hot water, in the next few months.

Last year, FERVO opened the country’s first enhanced geothermal plant near Winnemucca, Nev., but it’s only 3.5 megawatts. All of the power is contracted to Google for its data centers.

Fervo announced recently that it had secured $244 million in financing. The lead investor is Devon Energy, another Texas company that built its success on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

“Fervo’s approach to geothermal development leverages leading-edge subsurface, drilling, and completions expertise and techniques Devon has been honing for decades,” said David Harris, chief corporate development officer and executive vice president at Devon. “We look forward to deepening our partnership with Fervo to capture the full value of Fervo’s first-mover advantage in geothermal and the adjacencies to Devon’s core business.”

The Cape Station plant is on land leased from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, with some additional property leased from private landowners.

Anderson said the the plant will employ about 200 people during construction and “a few dozen” during operation.