Fervo Energy Reaches Milestone Using Oil Drilling Technologies to Harness Geothermal Energy

Fervo Energy’s Project Red full-scale commercial pilot in northern Nevada.

Photo courtesy of Fervo Energy

Geothermal startup Fervo Energy announced a key technical breakthrough on Tuesday that paves the way for geothermal to play a bigger role in the clean energy transition.

Fervo drills deep wells and pumps water into them. The water is heated by the heat of the ground, then the Fervo pumps it back to the surface, where a turbine converts that heat into electricity.

Fervo has successfully completed a 30-day test, considered the industry standard for geothermal energy, at a commercial pilot plant in northern Nevada, the company said in a statement. During the tests, Fervo drilled to 7,700 feet, then turned to drill another 3,250 feet horizontally, and internal temperatures reached about 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

The test at the pilot station achieved conditions that would allow for the generation of 3.5 megawatts of electricity, the company said. One megawatt is enough to meet the needs of 750 homes at the same time.

Fervo has just started construction on a 400 megawatt project that is expected to come online by 2028 and power around 300,000 homes.

“Fervo’s successful commercial pilot moves next-generation geothermal technology from the realm of models to the real world and starts us on the path to unlocking the full potential of geothermal energy,” said Jesse Jenkins, macro-energy systems engineer and professor at Princeton. written statement.

Currently, most geothermal energy resources are found near tectonic plate boundaries, where magma rises near the Earth’s surface, heating water trapped in the Earth’s surface nearby. Currently, geothermal energy provides only 0.4% of electricity in the United States.

Rather than relying on natural conditions, Fervo uses hydraulic fracturing drilling technology developed by the oil and gas industry to create reservoirs in rock deep underground.

“Using drilling technology from the oil and gas industry, we have proven that we can extract energy resources in new regions around the world 24/7 without carbon emissions,” Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo Energy, said in a written statement.

Fervo Energy co-founders Jack Norbeck (left) and Tim Latimer.

Photo courtesy of Fervo Energy

Use of oil and gas drilling technologies

Ten years ago, Latimer worked in the oil and gas industry as a drilling engineer.

“I liked the job, but I was passionate about climate change. I saw all the technical advances around me and realized they could be used to generate geothermal energy,” Latimer said in a thread posted on Twitter on Tuesday. Developments in oil and gas drilling, such as the development of the polycrystalline diamond cutter, “have changed the game,” Latimer said.

“With dramatically lower drilling costs, it would now be possible to drill deep and then drill horizontally for enhanced geothermal energy, greatly increasing resource productivity and enabling development anywhere,” Latimer wrote on Twitter.

When Latimer first came up with the idea of ​​using developments in oil and gas drilling to harness geothermal energy, he encountered a lot of resistance. The only place he found interest was Stanford’s geothermal program, where he was a graduate student and wrote and published a paper on the topic in 2017. That work was the basis for Fervo Energy, which Latimer launched in 2017 with Jack Norbeck, also from Stanford’s geothermal program.

“The last six years have been quite a journey. I never expected the amount of skepticism and pushback we would receive for what we thought was an obvious idea,” Latimer said in a Twitter thread. “So we set out to systematically demonstrate that this is a truly revolutionary and viable way to harness geothermal energy.”

However, they found believers and have since raised more than $200 million in investment, Latimer said on Twitter.

Fervo’s partnership with Google and a look into the future

Google is leading the way in its commitment to operate carbon-free 24/7 by 2030. “Tackling climate change is humanity’s next big step,” said Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

To meet its goal of operating 24/7 without carbon emissions by 2030, Google has had to purchase a lot of renewable energy to support all of its energy-intensive computing processes.

In 2021 Google signed a partnership with Fervo to develop a geothermal energy project.

Unlike wind and solar power, which are intermittent, geothermal energy is a “”permanent” carbon-free resource that can reduce our hourly dependence on fossil fuels,” wrote Michael Terrell, Google’s senior director of energy and climate. in 2021, when the partnership was first announced.

“Achieving our goal of running on 24/7 carbon-free energy will require new sources of solid, clean energy in addition to variable renewables like wind and solar,” Terrell said in a statement released Tuesday. “We partnered with Fervo in 2021 because we see significant potential for their geothermal technology to unlock a critical source of carbon-free, 24/7 energy at scale.”

Fervo Energy’s Project Red full-scale commercial pilot in northern Nevada.

Photo courtesy of Fervo Energy

As part of the partnership, Google is developing artificial intelligence and machine learning systems to improve Fervo’s efficiency, and Fervo is adding clean energy to Nevada’s grid, where Google is a major clean energy customer.

The U.S. Department of Energy has also launched what it calls “Enhanced Geothermal Energy,” an effort to reduce the cost of improved geothermal energy by 90% to $45 per megawatt-hour by 2035. The Energy Department says it hopes improved geothermal systems can potentially provide clean energy to 65 million American homes.

Fervo still has a long way to go from building an experimental plant to large-scale commercialization of geothermal energy, but Wilson Ricks, who works at Princeton’s Jenkins Lab and authored a paper on the role of geothermal energy in future decarbonized energy systems, says Fervo’s technical milestone is a real milestone.

“This is a very important milestone in the development of advanced geothermal systems. This is the first application of advanced drilling and well stimulation techniques developed in the shale oil and gas boom to geothermal energy, and it has been demonstrated that they can be used to create artificial geothermal reservoirs. providing high flow rates,” Ricks told CNBC. “There is still more development to be done toward large-scale and cost-competitive commercial systems, but the significance of this achievement cannot be underestimated.”

Advanced geothermal energy systems like the ones Fervo is developing “can do double duty as a form of long-term energy storage, increasing their ability to supplement wind and solar in a decarbonized grid,” Ricks told CNBC.

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