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The Biden Administration is moving fast to get the nation away from climate-damaging fossil fuels, but it’s not moving too fast, said U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.
Granholm was in Utah Wednesday as part of a post-State of the Union tour to promote the president’s clean-energy agenda. The plan includes large incentives for both industry and consumers to move away from oil, gas and coal to new technologies.
In his State of the Union address, Biden talked up his energy agenda, but he acknowledged that, “We’re going to need oil and gas for at least another decade, and beyond that.”
“This is a transition. It’s not an on and off switch,” Granholm said at a news conference at the University of Utah. “We need to make sure people have power.”
To those who say the administration is giving up on oil and gas before cleaner alternatives are in place, Granholm noted that the nation has produced record amounts of oil and gas in the last year. Oil production is at 12.2 million barrels a day, higher than it’s ever been.
Beyond addressing climate change, Granholm sees the energy transition as an opportunity to escape the financial and political vulnerability of relying on commodities like oil and gas, whose price is affected by the decisions of foreign players like Russia and Saudi Arabia. “The win part of this is that we can be energy independent and not have to rely on countries whose values we don’t share.”
Granholm chose Utah for this visit to promote the administration’s investments in geothermal energy. Utah FORGE, the DOE’s largest and most advanced laboratory for what is called “enhanced” geothermal energy, is located just outside of Milford. Joseph Moore, managing principal investigator of Utah FORGE, accompanied her on her visit.
Geothermal energy has been used for more than a century, but it has been limited to a few places where reservoirs like hot springs can be tapped. Enhanced geothermal is about drilling more than a mile deep into hot rock to bring the heat to the surface.
At the Utah FORGE site near Milford, University of Utah scientists have drilled one deep well and used fracking techniques from the oil and gas industry to create cracks in the hot rock. Later this year they will repeat the process with a second adjacent well. The plan is to create enough cracks that water can move from one well to the other. Then cold water can be pumped down one well while hot water – hot enough to drive a power plant – can be pulled from the second well.
Granholm announced that DOE is committing another $74 million to enhanced geothermal. This is on top of the $220 million that DOE had previously committed to Utah FORGE. For the next $74 million, DOE hopes to identify other sites for potential geothermal projects. She said that could include another Utah site, but Utah FORGE or any other group will have to compete with other researchers in a peer-reviewed process.
The DOE thinks the nation could get up to 90 gigawatts of continuous electricity from geothermal energy, which would be about 8% of the nation’s current electrical capacity. The fact that it is continuous means it can be clean “baseload” power to keep the electrical grid powered when intermittent renewables like solar and wind aren’t producing.
Granholm also toured the geothermal plant inside the U.’s Gardner Commons building. Completed in 2018, Gardner Commons is energy independent. To do that, the university drilled 150 wells down to 350 feet under a soccer stadium near the building
Unlike enhanced geothermal, which drills down to much lower, hotter depths, the water pumped through the U. wells isn’t hot enough to generate electricity from a power plant. But it can be used to heat the building in winter and cool it in summer.
U. Facilities Manager John Palo told Granholm the U. has capacity to add more buildings using the same system.
Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.