Drill, Baby, Drill: The Promise of Geothermal Power
Newsletter Techniques developed by Big Oil may lead to the next clean energy breakthrough. Clean energy has become synonymous with wind and solar, and with good reason. Thanks to improved technology and declining costs, wind turbines and solar panels are producing a rapidly growing share of the worlds electricity. But there are many other sources of clean power that could provide abundant, emissions-free energy and help replace fossil fuels. This week, my colleague Brad Plumer took . Traditional sources of geothermal power are well established. For more than a century, people have been using steam produced by underground heat to power generators. Iceland and New Zealand generate about 20 percent of their electricity from geothermal. But those countries are the exception. In most parts of the world, steam doesnt conveniently come out of the ground right where its needed. (Geothermal power produces less than one half of one percent of Americas electricity.) That could soon change. A new class of start-ups is investing in the industry, as is the U.S. Energy Department, which theres enough energy in the rocks below the surface to power the entire country five times over. And much of the research and development needed for the new geothermal technologies is already done, thanks in large part to recent advances by the oil and gas industry including fracking. Hows that for irony? At the end of the day, it might be techniques developed by Big Oil that ultimately help make fossil fuels obsolete. Over the past 20 years, fossil fuel companies have gotten very, very good at drilling. Its something that climate people never like to talk about, Brad told me. But the cost of drilling has gone down. The oil and gas industry has drilled thousands and thousands of wells and every time they get a little better. By using new techniques like horizontal drilling, fiber-optics and magnetic sensing, some experts think it might be possible to tap into geothermal energy almost anywhere on earth. The thing that made me think that this could be real is the fact that the major costs of these geothermal projects often is drilling, Brad said. And drilling is not something we have to learn to do from scratch. Drilling is something the United States has just gotten incredibly good at. In his article, Brad spoke with Tim Latimer, the co-founder of Fervo Energy, which is using an old oil rig from North Dakota and fracking techniques similar to those used for oil and gas to crack open dry, hot rock and inject water into the fractures, creating artificial geothermal reservoirs. Theres a virtually unlimited resource down there if we can get at it, Latimer said. Geothermal doesnt use much land, it doesnt produce emissions, it can complement wind and solar power. Everyone who looks into it gets obsessed with it. The industry is facing plenty of challenges. Investors are still cautious about putting too much money into an industry that has not proven the ability to scale. Permitting for the projects is difficult. Underground geology is complicated. Federal support for the industry pales in comparison to its support for fossil fuels and other sources of clean energy. Drilling for geothermal energy can create some of the same problems as drilling for gas: sucking up water and causing earthquakes. Still, the urgent need to find new sources of clean energy combined with the advances in drilling are creating a moment for geothermal. Fervo said last month that it had , and it is building a large-scale facility that would power 300,000 homes. Another geothermal start-up, Eavor, is now drilling wells for its first commercial plant in Germany to provide heat and power for the country, which is trying to sharply reduce its reliance on gas. The fact that people are building things makes me feel like this is a little less pie in the sky than other technologies, Brad told me. But theres still a long way to go from demonstrating that this is possible to actually making it a widespread reality. Fossil fuels made up only 33 percent of the European Unions electricity in the first half of this year, a record low, according to by Ember, an energy think tank. The slump in use of dirty energy sources is mostly a consequence of high gas and coal prices, which have curbed demand across Europe. Prices have fallen since the peak of the energy crisis created by the war in Ukraine, but are still high enough to curb industrial activity. Prices are not likely to go down any time soon, but demand could go up for other reasons, like a harsh winter. That could make fossil fuel use rise again in the short term. But what will happen in the long term is still unclear. Its an open question to which degree this is cyclical or structural, said Matt Ewan, the reports author. Longer-term trends are at play. Take coal, for example. There was a concern after the war started that countries would roll back their attempts to phase out coal. That didnt happen. Coal use fell by 23 percent in the first half of 2023. This was partly because high prices led to a slump in demand, but this decrease in coal use is projected to continue as more coal-powered power plants close. The record numbers are also the result of a push by countries in Europe to accelerate the energy transition. Seventeen of the European Unions 27 countries generated record renewable power in the first half of 2023. Generation from clean sources wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear increased across the region. Embers report said this transition still needed to happen even faster. That will become crucial as energy prices stabilize and efforts to electrify cars, trucks and other sectors pick up steam, increasing demand for electricity. Supply chain problems and high interest rates are hurting U.S. . A U.S. government auction for wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico attracted . Hurricane Idalia caused less damage in Florida than forecasters feared, though remnants of the storm are causing flash flooding in North Carolina. . Misattributed videos and recycled lies are fueling . A Supreme Court ruling forced the Biden administration to . Electric vehicle charging is changing. . These maps show how birds migrate across the Americas and . Firefighters from around Europe are in Greece fighting . Australia will acknowledge that climate change adds financial risk to government bonds under a court settlement, . As the battered the Carolina coast, and as churned far off in the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Jose formed early today. Forecasters expect that it will be absorbed by Hurricane Franklin by the weekend. Yes, : Think of it less like Pac-Man eating a ghost and more like a sponge absorbing water. Idalia is forecast to continue pulling away from the East Coast today, moving toward Bermuda as a potential tropical storm. Forecasters warned of significant uncertainty about its path beyond this weekend. is a correspondent on the Climate desk, covering the intersection of public policy and the private sector. Follow him on and Twitter.