Erik B. Olson: Geothermal could help make Utah’s climate compact a reality

(Rick Allis | Utah Geological Survey) A rig drills a geothermal well in Milford, Utah, in August 2017. It is part of a research experiment to find new ways to extract renewable energy from less than ideal locations. The Department of Energy award the University of Utah $140 million to support the project.

An “unprecedented” clean energy revolution is growing in Utah. On Oct. 7, bipartisan leaders from business, religion, citizen groups, and federal and state government signed on to the Utah Climate and Clean Air Compact.

With their signatures, they called on state government to adopt the “mileposts” outlined in a nonpartisan plan to establish Utah as a conservative climate and environment leader and “achieve a resilient, clean, and affordable energy future.”

But there was little mention of one key tool necessary to achieve these ambitious goals. It’s right below our feet. No, not the coal and natural gas our Republican leaders are so fond of but rather raw geothermal heat.

Utah is already known for our excellent solar resources, but few recognize how promising our geothermal is. Utah already has the third most installed geothermal energy capacity in the nation, and experts say we could have more than 12% of our electricity come from existing geothermal technology.

But even these numbers understate how much geothermal potential Utah really has. New “enhanced” geothermal technology (EGS) has greatly expanded where geothermal energy can be accessed. EGS uses advanced drilling techniques to drill with greater precision and to greater depths to access geothermal heat. One estimate for the U.S. quantifies the increase in access at around 1,300 times what used to be available only using conventional geothermal extraction techniques.

In other words, geothermal energy is no longer limited by the accessible resources, but by the cost of the technology to retrieve it.

Though still relatively expensive, there are good reasons to believe EGS technology costs could see the same dramatic declines that have been achieved by natural gas, wind and solar. There have now been several successes in producing cheap electricity from EGS sites in Nevada and Idaho. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy selected a research site in Milford to receive $140 million in funding to research these new technologies and bring down their costs as part of its FORGE program — literally and metaphorically breaking ground.

Investing in geothermal would bring jobs and tax dollars to underdeveloped parts of the state, particularly in the rural, western basin region. With breakthroughs from the Milford FORGE research site and continued federal investment in clean energy, stronger state support could catalyze more private investment and lay the groundwork for a new industry of cutting-edge geothermal companies.

In addition to the substantial economic benefits, geothermal energy would produce low-emissions energy around-the-clock. This reliable electricity would help balance out natural intermittency from wind and solar, reduce carbon emissions, and keep our air clean and snow plentiful.

Utah is one of the few U.S. states that could reap the benefits of a forward-thinking investment in EGS. Our enormous potential, pro-business environment, and, now, meaningful commitments to sustainability, could allow EGS to take off and bring costs down along the way.

There are positive signs Utah will not waste our extraordinary geothermal potential. Gov. Gary Herbert has previously affirmed his support for Utah “to become the new U.S. epicenter for advancing innovative geothermal.” Democratic candidate for governor Chris Peterson has explicitly called out geothermal energy as a tool for a cleaner future. And Reps. Ben McAdams and John Curtis and Sen. Mitt Romney have all recently voted in favor of geothermal-friendly legislation.

It’s time for Utah’s leaders to put their money where their mouths are. Ambitious goals mean little without equally ambitious action behind them. Signing the Climate and Clean Air Compact is a powerful first step, but taking measures to bring cutting-edge geothermal technology to Utah would be an even stronger second one.

Erik B. Olson

Erik B. Olson is a climate and energy analyst with the Breakthrough Institute, alumnus of Utah State University, resident of Salt Lake City, and climate hawk.