A groundbreaking renewable energy project is taking place near the small town of Milford, Utah, that could change the energy landscape of America forever.
With funding from the Department of Energy, researchers at Utah’s Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) are using state-of-the-art technology to tap into underground heat, known as geothermal energy, to generate electricity. If the technology works, it can be scaled up to provide affordable, reliable, carbon-free energy to millions of homes nationwide.
That would be no small feat. Only one-sixth of the country’s electricity generation currently comes from renewable sources — a far cry from the fully renewable energy future many envision. Roughly 12% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from heating and cooling buildings. Wind and solar power, which many cities are embracing, are critical to reducing fossil fuel emissions but can be unreliable when there’s no sunlight or wind. Unlike other renewables, geothermal can provide around-the-clock baseload power and meet our energy needs for millions of years to come.
Geothermal energy can be found virtually anywhere. The Earth’s core, which is about as hot as the surface of the sun, provides heat that emanates outwards, warming underground rocks and water. This heat can be captured from sources such as hot springs and geysers. In fact, humans have been using the heat from hot springs to bathe and cook for thousands of years. And today, with more sophisticated technology, energy from underground reservoirs of hot brine is used for district heating, greenhouses and fisheries.
There are a few different ways to access this heat. In Boise, Idaho, where the country’s first-ever geothermal district heating system was established, water from an aquifer beneath the city runs through heat-exchange systems to warm the buildings it serves. After the heat is extracted, the cooled water is re-injected into the ground. Thanks to easily accessible hot water below the surface, the city heats more than 90 buildings in its downtown area without emitting greenhouse gases, operating the largest direct-use geothermal system in the country.
But not all cities sit atop hot, permeable areas with easily accessible brine to draw from. In dry areas, enhanced geothermal systems must be constructed to create reservoirs and fracture hot rock that would otherwise be too impermeable for water to escape. A well is drilled and cool water is injected into it at high pressure, fracturing the rock and allowing the water to go through. After the water absorbs the underground heat, it’s returned through another well.
That’s essentially what the team at FORGE in Utah is doing. Steam from the reservoir will be used to turn a turbine and produce electricity. What differentiates this project from others is that deep, highly deviated wells are being drilled into extremely hot, hard crystalline granite. (Most geothermal projects involve drilling wells that are nearly vertical.) The first well, which has already been drilled, reaches temperatures of about 442 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, the underground water that flows through Boise’s conventional geothermal heating system is around 177 degrees Fahrenheit. Improved deep drilling techniques will allow for the creation of geothermal reservoirs where none already exist, and it will enable the maximization of energy production.
Geothermal projects often require deep drilling technologies and techniques developed by the oil and gas industry — but modified to withstand higher temperatures. Although the geothermal industry has borrowed techniques used for oil and gas fracking, the methods they use are safer; the fluids pumped into the ground aren’t dangerous (no toxic chemicals!) and are injected at lower pressure. Additionally, geothermal projects have to meet much more stringent safety protocols than oil and gas undertakings to avoid triggering earthquakes.
Newer technology is also being developed that may allow people to utilize geothermal energy anywhere in the world without injecting fluids into the ground.
For years, geothermal energy has lagged behind other renewables because of the lengthy permitting process and high upfront costs; a geothermal power plant can be several times more expensive to construct than a gas power plant, or solar or wind farm. Getting adequate funding for research and technology development has also been difficult. Now that’s changing: In 2020, Congress poured $110 million into DOE funding for geothermal development — $26 million more than the year prior. The industry may soon also benefit from investments made by oil and gas companies, as well as the skills and expertise that oil and gas workers have.
“In 2021, oil and gas majors are poised to make the first major geothermal investments in more than 30 years, say industry experts and energy executives, as financial returns on fossil fuels tank,” writes Michael Coren. Global investments in geothermal in 2020 were nearly six times greater than the year before — totaling $676 million. Earlier this year, BP and Chevron announced plans to invest millions of dollars in new geothermal technology. As fossil fuels are phased out, the geothermal industry could also potentially take in many oil and gas workers because of the overlap between geothermal and oil and gas in exploration and drilling.
Once more investments start flowing in and some of the newer technology is fine-tuned and made more affordable, the possibilities will be limitless. And with a new administration aiming to achieve zero-carbon in the power sector in the near future, geothermal should become a major player in the renewable game.
Shanelle Loren is a freelance writer who lives in Herriman, Utah.