A conversation about the state of the geothermal industry -- the investment, the startups, the new consortia and initiatives -- with Jamie Beard, founder of Project InnerSpace. We discuss the new technologies on the verge of transforming geothermal and the industry's only viable path to scale.
I find myself listening to pods like this one with Jamie in the context of commentary like this:
As you frequently point out David, we are VERY quickly running out of time, and also out of our carbon use budget to be even marginally successful. We have likely already tipped a few tipping points that will not be "un-tipped" any time soon.
Great episode, and it's fantastic to see this coverage of geothermal. but there a couple of points that I would like to add:
The "traditional geothermal only exists in a few places" argument is overblown. Resources have been identified in ~90 countries, and this number will increase as EGS and AGS mature. Many, many countries are increasing investment in geothermal development right now because it is clean, local and independent of Geo-politics.
In the US there is a clear connection between tax policy and geothermal project activity. The surge in 1980s geothermal development in the US was a direct result of the 1978 passage of the Public
Utility Regulatory Policies Act. As Jamie said, geothermal doesn't currently have the lobbying muscle of the other energy players and consistently gets left out of the tax incentive process. But that is improving.
The other big issue is this question of cost. Geothermal has been caught between cheap solar and cheap gas. As long as we use offsets and net energy use for faux renewables accounting, organizations can claim 100% renewables even though their actual supply is made up of both renewables and fossil fuels. The shift to 24/7 Carbon Free thinking is needed to fix this.
The only 24/7 clean power sources we have with predictable baseload output are nuclear and geothermal. Unfortunately, geothermal has to be cheaper than natural gas because we aren't accounting for the environmental advantages. If you want to eliminate natural gas power generation geothermal will have to be part of the mix.
I'm really skeptical of suggestions that geothermal needs to compete with solar on cost. What is the cost of a MWhr of solar at night in Winter? Electrification is going to drive massive demand increases in Winter, and we would need multi-week storage to be able to handle this demand with solar and wind.
One last correction:
Jamie mentioned the surge in oil major interest in geothermal as if it was it was a brand new thing. Some oil majors have had a long history in geothermal. Unocal, Chevron and Texaco all competed in geothermal in the 70s and 80s, but exited in the face of low oil prices and little interest in clean energy. Unocal sold its assets by 1992 and Chevron exited in 2016. But it's great to see them back!
Thanks for a great episode!
Jamie talked about the NEPA process on BLM land taking 6 to 8 years...what? I've been doing environmental permitting, including NEPA, on energy and transportation for over two decades and if you can't get to a FONSI or ROD in less than two years, you're doing something very wrong, especially if you're out in the boonies on BLM land.
If what you're proposing to do is so similar to oil and gas development, use the Cat Exs that industry has already developed. They're specific to the activity, not the industry.
An inspiring interview. Go Jamie Beard!
I'm a tech nerd and it has taken me a while to recognize that the biggest obstacles to the energy transition are social and political, not financial, not technical. Geothermal in the oil patch makes so much sense socially and politically by utilizing existing skills and infrastructure that would otherwise eventually be abandoned.
Here in Canada in our (very right wing voting) oil patch the shift has begun. Eavor Technolgies and Deep Earth Energy Production have two novel approaches to geothermal, invented by petroleum engineers, that are both nearing full scale production pilots. Three of the most advanced direct lithium extraction from oil field brine projects, two in Canada, one in Arkansas, each using different chemistries, were started by refugees from big oil. Two of these companies are run by women who had long careers in the oil industry.
This never gets to the point of "energy density," which I would put in MWe/sq. mi., power density, for comparison to other renewables. From what I can gather, for recently completed "advanced" geo systems, that appears to be around 3-4MWe/sq. mi. given a practical two-ish 10MWt thermal production wells per sq mi, producing 150-200C-ish fluid, with resulting low thermal-to-electrical efficiency.
Whether fluid is piped around, or modular power plants used, enhanced geothermal is not just a "drop-in" replacement for existing 1000 MW coal plants. It's 300 sq. mi. of stuff. Locations are also limited by geology, like wind farms are limited by wind speed, and about the same power density, but geo does have a higher capacity factor so about 2.5x the energy density. Like a wind farm, lots of roads, and with added other facilities, condenser fans, or fluid piping, etc. Probably more ongoing maintenance and traffic than wind turbines.
Sure, maybe if these super deep, super hot systems develop, power density and MW/well numbers will improve. But we are looking at a decade apparently, if it pans out.
IF one needs this medium temp heat, yields look better. We'll see what happens at Cornell. One project in Finland was abandoned due to "induced seismicity."
As far as permitting, some recent proposed small hydrothermal projects with permit issues are co-located with existing and relatively rare desert springs. This makes folks justifiably nervous. And wind and solar on BLM land have been subjected to similar decades long permitting processes, they are not rubber stamped at all.
Sure, geo of any kind should be part of the quiver, particularly where the right rock is under land w/o good solar or wind or if deep heat can really be tapped for less than running VRE-powered heat pumps. Elsewhere, I'll go with wind/solar/storage/backup, or wind/solar/long-duration storage. And yeah, we need to buck up and accept some adverse impacts from those.
David, You might be interested in the story unfolding right now at Smith College, one of the Seven Sisters colleges on the Eastern seaboard (Northampton, MA, in this case) where the campus is converting their entire HVAC system to geothermal. Here is a webpage about it. Seems like a worthy episode for an excellent case study on private actors converting large facilities to geothermal heating/cooling: https://smithgeoenergy.info/ - my affiliation is only as the parent of a recent graduate of the school.
One quick, snide comment. You drill wells not dig them at leastm since Howard Hughes' father invented the tri-cone bit. The more serious comment is I think there's potential for low temperature geothermal for heating home and, especially, apartment and commercial buildings. The eastern europeon model of a central heating plant for a district or subdivision might work well.
Excellent episode! Living in CA with the most geothermal utilization in the US, I can say that it remains under-utilized. There are many more possibilities for it here that are not yet being used, and do not require enhanced geothermal development.
One common misconception that needs clarification is that geothermal does not necessarily increase earthquake activity--in CA, it is documented to reduce tremors in some instances. The reason seems to be that many times extracting heat solidifies the rock and reduces quake activity. The L.A. Times published a piece about this this past year.
When the map of geothermal possibilities gets published, one hopes it will lead to a boom in the production of power. It can be a implemented at rational costs in a short period of time, unlike nuclear, and supplements other renewable sources nicely. One day, a genius is going to figure a way to use excess wind/solar to reheat the exhaust water for a geothermal well, and either return it to the ground as with a heat battery, or recycle the water for further power generation to meet demand, and balance supply.
I belong to a community solar project in my county. The project added a geothermal well at Mono Lake in CA this past year. It is a small well, but enough to provide supplementation of the solar, especially for nights and those cloudy days we have seen too many of this winter.