Steve Handy: Utah is ramping up geothermal, using oil and gas tech

(Rick Allis | Utah Geological Survey) A rig drills a geothermal well in Milford, Utah, in August 2017.

The energy technologies of the future are closer than you think, because in some cases, they are closely connected to the energy technologies of today.

Hydrogen fuels and advanced nuclear reactors are good examples. But arguably the best example is geothermal energy, which involves the very same drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies that fueled a massive boom in U.S. oil and natural gas production.

Utah is about to play a major leadership role in the next phase of geothermal energy production, following the announcement of a large new project in Beaver County.

Northeast of Milford, startup company Fervo Energy has received federal permits to drill 29 geothermal wells that will use heat from deep geological formations to generate electricity. Together, the wells are expected to have a generating capacity of 90 megawatts or more.

Fervo Energy has already secured buyers for the electricity and the geothermal facility is expected to enter commercial operation in 2026. By 2028, the project is expected to grow to 400 megawatts.

The Beaver County project will apply technology that was proven on a pilot scale in northern Nevada. There, Fervo Energy drilled vertically to a depth of around 7,700 feet and then horizontally for 3,250 feet, where underground temperatures exceeded 370 degrees Fahrenheit.

Cold water was pumped down the well and circulated back to the surface hundreds of degrees hotter, where it will be used to drive a turbine that generates electricity without any carbon emissions. Not only that, electricity production from geothermal does not depend on weather conditions like other renewables like wind and solar, which makes it more reliable for utility companies and their customers.

“By applying drilling technology from the oil and gas industry, we have proven that we can produce 24/7 carbon-free energy resources in new geographies across the world,” said Tim Latimer, Fervo Energy’s CEO and co-founder, who was an oil and gas drilling engineer before going to work in geothermal.

Even before Fervo Energy’s Beaver County project, Utah was one of the nation’s pioneering geothermal states.

A major geothermal field laboratory, known as the Utah FORGE, is also located outside of Milford and it operates with the support of the U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Utah’s Energy and Geoscience Institute. And there are currently three operating geothermal power plants in our state, with a combined generating capacity of just over 70 megawatts, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

But the completion of Fervo Energy’s new Utah project would more than double the state’s geothermal generating capacity, and state officials say that could just be the beginning. The state has “enormous geothermal energy potential,” according to the Utah Office of Energy Development.

State officials have projected more than 2,000 megawatts of additional geothermal electricity capacity could be developed in Utah. For scale, that’s the equivalent of two large scale nuclear power plants.

Nationwide, U.S. officials project that geothermal electric capacity could grow by 60,000 megawatts over the next three decades. That’s the equivalent of 60 large scale nuclear plants being built at a pace of more than two per year.

No doubt, a range of different geothermal technologies will be deployed. But if most of them utilize drilling and fracking like Fervo Energy, imagine how this provides additional career prospects for oil and gas workers, who know more about drilling and fracking than anyone else.

This is what most political actors in the energy space — on the left and on the right — get wrong about the so-called energy transition. As we add new sources of energy to the nation’s supply, new energy jobs will come with them, and the people best suited for those jobs are working in the energy sector already.

At the end of the day, the energy business is about building things, whether it’s a geothermal well, a wind farm, a natural gas turbine, or a solar array. The mix of technologies will change over time, as it always has, but the need for people who can build things will not.

The energy business has never been a zero-sum game and in my view it never will be. The geothermal breakthroughs we are seeing in Utah, based on oil and gas sector technologies, shows this to be true.

Steve Handy

Steve Handy is a former state legislator and the Utah director for The Western Way, an organization focused on market-competitive solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.