celandic Landscape of geothermal power plant

Some Like It Hot: Geothermal Energy May Become a Watershed Clean-Energy Source

Posted by

Chevron is part of a group of old-school fossil-fuel companies investing hundreds of millions of dollars into geothermal-energy projects aiming to use fracking-type technology to find and access underground heat — heat that might very well become the world’s most-stable source of clean power. 

In sufficient quantities, underground heat can be used to generate a consistent source of carbon-free electricity, making it superior to both wind and solar power, both of which suffer from issues of unreliability.

While finding suitable heat sources in places with significant geothermal activity, including portions of the United States, is relatively easy, the difficulty and expense of converting that heat to usable power has, up to this point, prevented companies in the energy sector from exploiting it. But recent progress in drilling, sensor, and modeling technology has incentivized large energy companies to take another look, and caused the Energy Department to estimate geothermal energy could power the equivalent of 65 million homes by 2050.

These new processes rely on the constant temperatures found well below the earth’s surface. Techniques more-commonly associated with fracking, such as horizontal drilling and the pumping of water through rock fractures, allow more-economical electricity generation from geothermal sources. When the pumped water returns to the surface after absorbing heat from a geothermal source, it transfers that heat to a liquid with a lower boiling point. This generates steam, which turns turbines and generates electricity. Relatively inexpensive infrastructure could jumpstart the growth of this technology as well; it is possible to retrofit existing oil-and-gas wells to use it, allowing them to produce geothermal power alongside fossil fuels.

The attempt to obtain the same sort of breakthrough that fracking brought to fossil fuels — only this time with clean energy — has drawn hundreds of millions of dollars from investment houses and oil-and-gas giants alike. For example, Devon Energy poured $100 million into Fervo Energy  — a startup with big ideas in the field — in one of the biggest investments an oil-and-gas company has ever made in a clean-energy startup. Fervo recently began sending electricity to the local grid in Nevada to power various local projects. In Utah, Fervo aims to produce enough electricity to power hundreds of thousands of homes.

British Petroleum was a part of a recent $182 million total investment into Canadian startup Eavor Technologies, among whose early backers was no less a giant than Chevron; Chevron is also involved in pilot projects located in Japan, Indonesia, and the United States.  Google is reportedly looking for potential sites where it might use geothermal power to power its data centers. Not to be left out, the Energy Department recently granted $60 million to a trio of projects from companies including Chevron and Fervo, with a further boost coming from tax credits that were part of the 2022 climate law.

While geothermal is not quite yet the next big thing in clean power, large energy companies’ massive investment in geothermal-extraction technology development indicates that they see enough there to bet eye-popping amounts of their own cash on the tech eventually getting there. If you run an energy-hungry business, getting in on the ground floor — should a geothermal-energy project be running in your area — could not only be a smart investment, but a good public-relations move as well.  Who wouldn’t want their company to be looked upon as a clean-energy hero?