Geothermal myth #1: “Geothermal is an old and sleepy industry”

February 16, 2023

In this five-part “Geothermal Mythbusters” series, Fervo will debunk common misconceptions associated with the geothermal industry.

Geothermal energy in the United States dates back to the 1890’s, when the town of Boise, Idaho began using the earth to heat Victorian homes and the downtown natatorium. As of 2019, Boise’s geothermal district heating system is the largest in the country, warming over 6 million square feet of building space and expanding.

Commercial geothermal electric power production began in the United States in 1960, when PG&E completed Unit 1 at the Geysers in Northern California, generating 11 MW of electricity. Over the next three decades, as power generation capacity at the Geysers grew steadily and other utility-scale geothermal developments popped up in California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Alaska, and Hawaii, the United States became the global leader in both geothermal power generation and installed capacity.

The Troubled History of Geothermal

The question remains – if geothermal energy has been around for such a long time, why hasn’t it grown more substantially? Why is “renewable energy” in the United States today synonymous with intermittent clean sources like wind and solar, while geothermal, supplying only 0.4% of the U.S. electricity mix, is an afterthought?

Source: EIA

The slow pace of geothermal development over the last two decades stems from lack of market demand, drilling of unpredictable wells, and absence of policy support. These challenges are inextricably linked. Because traditional geothermal wells targeted a very specific set of subsurface conditions, historical drilling success rate was low. In fact, one in three geothermal wells drilled turned out to be completely dry. Even successful wells often saw low productivity, barring projects from achieving productivity targets.

Low predictability of a high capex activity kept the cost of geothermal projects high, and as wind and solar began to scale, geothermal was unable to compete. Low demand encouraged sparse competition, and policymakers had little reason to focus resources on growing the industry.

Setting the Stage for A New Era for Geothermal Energy

While the geothermal industry stalled, another industry’s well drilling capabilities exploded. Over the same time period (roughly 2005 to 2020), the shale boom incited immense innovation in the oil and gas industry, and drilling productivity increased, in some cases, by as much as 10X.

Source: EIA Drilling Productivity report.

Imagine focusing on flip phone development during the smartphone revolution. The geothermal industry has remained rooted in traditional drilling technology while subsurface exploration and production methods have evolved dramatically. This gap between geothermal and oil and gas drilling performance creates natural conditions for the innovation that Fervo aims to pioneer.

What’s more, in June of 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission mandated California load serving entities (LSEs) to procure at least 1,000 MW of clean, firm power such as geothermal to ensure reliability by mid-decade. This decision, known as the “MTR” (for mid-term reliability) has generated sudden demand for 24/7 carbon-free energy (CFE) from LSEs in California, LSEs in other states, corporations with voluntary 24/7 CFE goals, and the federal government.

Taken together, oil and gas innovation combined with strong commercial demand have unstuck the geothermal energy industry from a vicious cycle. It is now one of the hottest renewables on the market (no pun intended) and has everyone wondering “how do we get more geothermal on the grid?”

With innovation in place, strong commercial demand, policy support mounting, and strong cost-reduction forecasts, there’s nothing stopping the new era of geothermal energy.

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