Opinion: Geothermal energy deserves the red carpet, not red tape

Geothermal developers are drilling for zero-carbon sources of energy that can provide electricity consistently around the clock.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Drill site for Utah FORGE, the nation's largest geothermal experiment, north of the town of Milford, on Thursday, July 6, 2023.

One of the most promising energy sources in America today is geothermal, which harnesses the natural heat contained in deep geological formations to generate electricity. Tim Fitzpatrick, reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, recently provided an excellent overview.

Using technologies and talented workers from the oil and gas industry, geothermal developers are drilling for zero-carbon sources of energy that can provide electricity consistently around the clock.

The federal government projects that 60 gigawatts of geothermal power generation could be built in the U.S. between now and 2050. That’s the equivalent of 60 large-scale nuclear power plants, or 8.5% of the nation’s projected power generating capacity by the middle of this century.

Utah is already a leader in this promising sector. The Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) is located in Beaver County and the state ranks third in the nation for geothermal electricity capacity, behind California and Nevada.

Given the tremendous potential of this energy source, the federal government should be rolling out the red carpet to geothermal developers. But instead, the opposite is happening — geothermal is getting tripped up by red tape.

For this reason, Republican Utah Congressman John Curtis is spearheading legislation aimed at cutting through this bureaucratic gridlock and unleashing the full potential of geothermal in our state and across the country.

The bill — the Geothermal Opportunity Act — addresses the permitting challenges that hinder the development of geothermal energy, especially on federal land in Western states. Right now, even after a project is approved, the U.S. Interior Department is withholding subsequent approvals that are needed for construction to begin because of lawsuits that are filed by environmental groups and other special interests.

The proposed legislation is straightforward: It would compel the Interior Department to continue issuing authorizations unless a federal court nullifies the underlying drilling lease. This will do a lot to prevent arbitrary obstruction of geothermal projects in the federal court system, ensuring they can advance without unnecessary delays.

This legislation is well-timed, because permitting delays are threatening to stunt the growth of geothermal when the sector is making major breakthroughs.

Here in Utah, the geothermal developer Fervo Energy is building a 400-megawatt power project near the FORGE research facility. During construction, the project will support 6,600 jobs and when it enters operations, 160 workers will be employed there.

Fervo Energy recently reported major improvements in drilling efficiencies, which can speed up the drilling process by 70% and cut the cost of drilling almost in half. One of Fervo’s investors is Devon Energy Corp., a company that uses drilling and hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas.

“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, Devon’s chief corporate development officer and executive vice president, in response to the time and cost savings.

The application of drilling and fracking technologies by Fervo Energy and other developers is one of the biggest reasons why geothermal is poised to dramatically expand.

Traditional geothermal power plants rely on extracting fluids from naturally occurring hot underground reservoirs to generate steam, which then drives turbines to produce electricity. However, this process is limited by the requirement for specific geological conditions, including the presence of hot rock, fluids, and underground fractures.

Enhanced geothermal systems can operate in underground areas lacking these natural geological conditions. Leveraging fracking technology borrowed from the oil and gas sector, enhanced geothermal developers can inject fluids into artificially created fractures to produce the steam needed for power generation.

But this technology is only useful if project developers can get the permits and other authorizations needed to start building new geothermal power plants.

That’s why geothermal permitting reform proposals — including Congressman Curtis’s bill — deserve to become law.

Red tape shouldn’t be allowed to hold back the development of innovative new energy technologies that increase choice and competition on the power grid. But without action from Congress, that may happen in the case of enhanced geothermal technologies.

That wouldn’t just be a loss for Utah — it would be a major missed opportunity for the country as well.

(Photo courtesy of Steve Handy) Steve Handy

Steve Handy is a former Utah legislator and Utah director for The Western Way with a focus on fiscal, conservative, market-competitive solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.

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