Located in the rocky mountains of northern Nevada is “Project Red,” a full-scale commercial pilot plant run by Fervo Energy, a Houston-based startup that wants geothermal to play a big role in mitigating the climate crisis and transitioning to renewables.
According to the startup, with its innovative drilling technology, Project Red was able to produce 24/7 energy for 30 days, making it , as the startup says, “the most productive enhanced geothermal system in history.”
Geothermal energy — the energy produced using heat from the Earth’s crust using a series of underground pathways — is a less used clean energy source because while it produces no carbon, it’s difficult to achieve due to the Goldilocks combination of geographical conditions it needs.
Right now, the majority of geothermal energy resources are located near tectonic plate boundaries where most volcanoes are located, making them optimal places where magma gets close to the Earth’s surface.
Rather than pulling up the actual magma, geothermal works by conducting fluids through the hot rocks and drawing it as energy in the form of heat through wells.
This fluid is scalding, with Fervo's coming in at nearly 191°C or 375°F.
Often to the chagrin of many environmentalists, this process requires drilling into the Earth, in the way oil and gas do, in order to create the wells.
However, when most geothermal plants are found near the Ring of Fire, allowing geothermal to generate 25% of Iceland’s energy, for example, most of the United State’s plants are located in Hawai'i, allowing the country to lead the world in capacity size, more than tripling Iceland’s capacity but only providing for 0.4% of our energy.
In short, the geothermal Goldilocks is unlikely to make herself comfortable in the U.S., but if we could better harness the heat farther below the surface, rather than relying on naturally occurring conditions, Goldilocks might do a double-take.
That’s what Fervo Energy is doing.
Taking a page from the oil and gas playbook, the company is the industry’s drilling technology to use hydraulic fracturing and create reservoirs. This is better known as fracking, often a bad word when it comes to environmental advocacy. The reason so many environmentalists see fracking as a big no-no is because it has a probability of triggering earthquakes if a rock is fractured.
Nevertheless, given the fact that below the Earth’s crust is potentially one of the largest sources of reliable and inexhaustible carbon-free renewable energy that’s always on, a Department of Energy analysis shows there’s a way to tap it while being careful to avoid a quake fate. Fervo reports completing Project Red “without incident.”
With the fracturing, the Department reports the United States sits atop enough heat resources to meet the entire world’s electricity needs. In terms of our 2050 climate goals, the report shows enhanced geothermal projects like that of Fervo can provide potentially 90 gigawatts of power to America’s grid by that year. That’s enough to meet the power needs of more than 65 million U.S. homes.
That’s why the country is betting on young technology and betting on Fervo.
As Fervo Energy CEO and cofounder Tim Latimer detailed in a Twitter thread, “The Fervo journey began 10 years ago when I was still working in the oil and gas industry as a drilling engineer. I loved the work, but I was passionate about climate change. I saw all the tech advancement around me and realized that it could be used for geothermal energy.”
Drastically lowered drilling costs are what is enabling Fervo’s work, however, Latimer admits he was surprised by the doubt on account of the drilling.
“The last six years have been quite a journey,” he tweeted, “I never expected how much skepticism and pushback we would receive for what we thought was an obvious idea. So we set out to systematically prove this was a truly revolutionary, and viable, way of doing geothermal.”
Throughout its lifetime, the startup has raised over $200 million from investors and philanthropists with some financing from the DOE’s Geothermal Technologies Office and its Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, aptly abbreviated to FORGE. Its most recent investor is oil producer Devon Energy.
Through FORGE, the DOE is also leading its own geothermal projects such as a $220 million initiative it has in the Mineral Mountains of Utah that is deploying a similar approach to Fervo’s. Adjacent to Utah FORGE, Fervo broke ground on its project in the Beehive State this summer.
According to Fervo, the results from Project Red support the DOE’s findings that if scaled, geothermal energy could supply over 20% of U.S. power needs and complement wind and solar to reach a fully decarbonized grid. Fervo says its results can “pave the way” for the country TO reach this ahead of schedule.
“By and large geothermal has been left out of the conversation,” Latimer tweeted. “It’s often not included in grid modeling forecasts, when it is, it’s viewed as too early stage or too far away, and receives the least government support of any energy resource.”
While the millions invested in geothermal is a drop in the bucket compared to other renewables, Fervo is using its funding to expand. Currently, the company is working to complete its Nevada and Utah power plants as well as evaluating new projects across California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico.
One project will even double as a direct air capture facility to capture and permanently store planet-warming carbon emissions.
According to Latimer, these projects and the Project Red milestone prove that enhanced geothermal is ready for rapid deployment. It seems that in addition to the DOE, Google is in agreement.
In 2021, Fervo and Google established the world’s first corporate agreement to develop next-generation geothermal power. The goal of the partnership is to power Google’s Cloud region in Las Vegas with the “always-on,” carbon-free resource, reducing the company’s hourly reliance on fossil fuels.
“Achieving our goal of operating on 24/7 carbon-free energy will require new sources of firm, clean power to complement variable renewables like wind and solar,” Michael Terrell, Senior Director for Energy and Climate at Google, said in a statement.
“We partnered with Fervo in 2021 because we see significant potential for their geothermal technology to unlock a critical source of 24/7 carbon-free energy at scale, and we are thrilled to see Fervo reach this important technical milestone.”
While it's notable that Project Red achieved conditions that would generate 3.5 megawatts of electricity production, enough to power over 2,600 homes at once, Fervo is dreaming much bigger, from being able to power Google’s data centers to a project it recently began construction on that is worth 400 megawatts. The Houstonian startup expects the project to be online by 2028 and to power roughly 300,000 homes all with energy from the Earth’s crust.
“The world desperately needs it,” Latimer wrote concluding his thread. “Study after study show the need for clean firm power. Climate change is rapidly worsening. We need a reliable, affordable, grid. Geothermal is that missing piece of the puzzle.”