Considered the most reliable energy source after nuclear, geothermal energy has traditionally been overlooked as a source of carbon-free power in favor of wind and solar, which are affordable and have long benefited from tax incentives. However, market forces, policy developments, and technological advances are aligning to drive down the costs of and drive up the potential for geothermal energy.
Geo (earth) thermal (heat) energy is just that, energy drawn from the Earth’s heat. Geothermal power plants work by drilling wells deep below the Earth’s surface to pump steam and hot water from underground reservoirs (natural or man-made) to the top. This energy is converted to electricity where it is used in a variety of applications from bathing, to heating buildings, to electrical power generation. Geothermal energy is continuously produced from the earth’s core, making it an infinitely renewable and dispatchable energy source. Geothermal also has the smallest land use intensity of all green energy technologies, according to a report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
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While geothermal energy generates just 0.4% of the total U.S. electricity supply, its potential for impact is enormous. According to some industry experts, geothermal could be powering one in five U.S. households by 2050. In volcanic-laden Iceland, more than nine in ten residents have their homes heated by direct heat from deep geothermal. Meanwhile, China is rapidly turning to geothermal for its electricity needs as the country looks to wean off fossil fuels. China now has the highest number of geothermal district heating systems worldwide, YaleEnvironment360 said in a report.
The main barrier to developing geothermal power today remains the high upfront costs of accessing deep geothermal energy. However, costs are coming down as advancements in deep drilling techniques make this ubiquitous power source much more accessible.
One company that’s pioneering next-generation geothermal technology is Fervo Energy, a Houston-based clean energy startup. Since its founding in 2017, Fervo has been developing new ways to access the vast geothermal resources under the earth’s surface. The company is known for using existing techniques from the oil and gas industry, like horizontal drilling and fiber-optic sensing tools, to tap into deeper wells and hotter sources that would traditionally be impossible to reach.
In February, Fervo announced that it would begin the design and engineering of a fully integrated geothermal and direct air capture (DAC) facility. The DAC system will capture carbon dioxide (CO2) from the sky using energy from the earth’s crust. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s co-owned philanthropy LLC, is supporting the project with a grant.
“Geothermal can deliver the carbon-free power and heat needed to make DAC a viable means for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo Energy, said in the announcement. “Fervo is well positioned to drive innovation in carbon removal and demonstrate the natural alignment between geothermal and DAC.”
Fervo aims to have a pilot facility online within five years, The Washington Post reported. Once completed, the project will be the first-of-its-kind combined geothermal and direct air capture plant.
The project is important because DAC operations are notoriously energy intensive. According to Australian software insights company Keynumbers, a DAC facility requires almost as much energy to run in the first place as the amount of carbon it would remove from the atmosphere.
Climate scientists worldwide agree that achieving global climate targets requires removing and sequestering atmospheric CO2. As such, direct air capture and storage technologies are a critical tool in the arsenal against climate change. Unfortunately, the high costs and energy associated with DAC operations have long precluded the technology from truly taking off as a viable carbon removal solution. As advancements in geothermal power production render around-the-clock renewable electricity ever more feasible, companies like Fervo are finding unique ways to leverage innovations in geoscience to accelerate clean energy technologies. In short, a major win for the environment and consumers.
Nathalie Voit is a freelance content creator and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is an alumni of The Heritage Foundation’s Young Leaders Program.