Geothermal Experts Explore Future of Growing Industry

The heat beneath our feet, or geothermal energy, has begun to trend in the public consciousness after years of relative obscurity compared to other renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The field, for example, was the focus of a story late last year in Rolling Stone magazine.
Geothermal Experts Explore Future of Growing Industry
Courtesy of Eavor

How can the growing industry jumpstart that interest, and what other trends are affecting a resource that many believe could power the planet and move us away from the fossil fuels that contribute to global warming? Eight experts in the field, including the CEO of the company featured in Rolling Stone, addressed those questions in a virtual seminar February 16. “The Earth Has Power. Let’s Switch It On”was organized by Baseload Capital, an investment firm in Sweden focusing on geothermal projects.

Among the experts’ conclusions: to maintain interest in geothermal, the industry must do a better job of explaining the resource and sharing its vast potential.

Speakers also named several specific trends that are shaping the industry. These include recent interest—and investments—by the oil and gas industry, and work toward new drilling technologies that can reach much deeper into the Earth where the bulk of the geothermal resource is stored.

The Potential

Referring to geothermal as “the sleeping giant,” Kristina HagströmIlievska, chief marketing officer for Baseload, noted that today the resource accounts for less than two percent of our total energy consumption. “And yet, unlike solar and wind, it can stay on around the clock.” Plus, “[geothermal] heat can be found everywhere on the planet.”

To realize that potential, the field must “evolve incrementally, as well as look for disruptive new ideas,” said Pernilla Wihlborg, Baseload’s chief operating officer. “That’s why we are having this seminar,” she said. “If we as a community can come together [and] share insights, ideas,reflections on different trends, then solutions might be born. Even the long-shot ideas areworth looking at. Considering that climate change is the biggest problem humanity hasever faced, we should leave no stone unturned.”

New Investments

The day of the Baseload seminar, Chevron and BP announced that they will invest $40 million in Eavor Technologies, a Canadian geothermal company. That’s significant because it marks the first time in recent history that the oil industry has made a big investment in geothermal, said John Redfern, Eavor’s CEO and a speaker at the Baseload seminar. Chevron and BP essentially said, “We like what’s happening in geothermal. It's finally looking scalable. We're in,” Redfern said.

Big Oil is an especially important partner for the geothermal industry because “not only do they bring money and motivation,” Redfern said, they bring expertise “in global operations and project management, and knowledge of the subsurface and how you mitigate risks.”Manon Stöver, Baseload’s chief technology officer, noted that there are many synergies between the oil and gasand geothermal industries. Stöverwas trained as a petroleum engineer.

Said Redfern, “Everyone said that the pivot would start when oil and gas placed their bet and entered the fray. Well, it’s happened. The geothermal decade has started.”

Toward Deeper Drilling

To truly unlock the potential of geothermal energy, the industry must develop better drilling techniques that can “mine heat at much deeper depths,” said Vinod Khosla, an entrepreneur, investor, and co-founder of Sun Microsystems. Today geothermal companies typically drill to depths of, at the most, roughly five kilometers. “If we [can] go to 15 to 20 kilometers…then we will have limitless heat everywhere on the planet, or most placeson the planet, with geothermal. And that would expand the market for geothermal 100fold,” said Khosla, who describes himself as being “very, very bullish on geothermal.”

Although work to make current geothermal reservoirs more efficient is important, Khosla continued, “itdoesn't scale geothermal by 100 fold. And that's what we need. To do that,there's one and only one technology needed, which is deep drilling.”

“We need to do this cost-effectively,” Khosla said. Today, “the cost per foot of drilling goes up exponentially as you godeeper. If you could make a linear cost of drilling as you go deeper, then we have a really,really exciting technology.” He mentioned one company that is working on that. Quaise Energy is pioneering a new drilling technique that, according to CEO Carlos Araque, replaces drill bits with a powerful form of electromagnetic energy—millimeter waves—that can actually vaporize rock. (Disclaimer: Quaise is supported in part by Vinod Khosla. Araque commented on Quaise after the Baseload seminar. He was not a speaker at the event.)

Redfern, too, cited the importance of better drilling technologies. “If we can win that one, that will help everyone collectively.” He noted that Eavor, too, is working on drilling solutions that the company plans to demonstrate in Utah soon.

Spreading the Word

How can the geothermal industry capitalize on its newfound attention and spread the word to more people? Alexander Richter, a major spokesperson for the industry and founder of ThinkGeoEnergy, encouraged geothermal companies to work even harder at educating the world about geothermal and its potential. “We have apowerful message to tell, but we need to do better [at sharing it].”

Said Alexander Helling, CEO of Baseload, “We are talking too little about what we do,what we offer. So don't be shy, talk about what you plan, talk about your project, highlight what you do...Let's create [more]content to really be more present in the current energy-transition discussions.”

About the author: By Elizabeth A. Thomson of Quaise Energy


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