Fracking makes this clean energy cheaper

A drilling derrick is part of the energy research project Deep Heat Mining in Switzerland.

A few thousand feet below Texas’ sunbaked surface, sedimentary rock and gravel are superheated to hundreds of degrees by the earth’s magma.

Drilling derrick by Georgios Kefalas
Credits: Georgios Defalas

Geothermal energy flows every minute of every day, and for decades scientists have searched for a way to harness it economically. A group of scientists from Texas’ top universities and corporations says geothermal generation of electricity is finally feasible, in a new report published by the University of Texas.

Texas is uniquely positioned, with relatively shallow hot spots dotted around the state and an industry experienced with drilling, the report concludes. But will our leaders nurture the nascent industry, or will they see a threat to the fossil fuel industry?

The report’s authors and the Texas Geothermal Energy Alliance try to position the industry as an oil and gas ally. To be sure, the companies that extract fossil fuels possess the skills and technology to harness geothermal resources in many of the same places.

Oil and gas operators, though, make money by selling hydrocarbon molecules, whereas this new industry sells heat.

Geothermal energy producers pipe water around the earth’s subterranean furnace to produce steam that can provide heat or spin electric turbines. The energy released does not contribute to climate change.

So far, geothermal’s biggest problem is cost. Only a few parts of the world have shallow geothermal resources that are easy to access. Going deeper is expensive, and higher temperatures create complications.

Oil field service companies hold the answers.

For the past 20 years, drillers have perfected drill bits and pipes that can endure high temperatures. Horizontal wells can cut through geothermal zones, and hydraulic fracturing can help water pass through hot rock and return steam to the surface.

“Both industries strive to characterize and predict fluid flows from the subsurface, use wells to access resources, handle facility and fluid production at the surface, and execute large-scale projects,” the report concludes. “Value could be quickly gained by the geothermal industry in application of some of the processes, technologies and assets from the oil and gas industry.”

Applying shale-oil drilling technology could reduce geothermal costs by 20 to 43 percent, the report calculates. Bringing down expenses is critical to making geothermal competitive with wind, solar and natural gas, the cheapest energy sources without tax credits.

The Inflation Reduction Act will soon provide geothermal projects the same production tax credits as other clean energy projects, which makes them more competitive. Initial investments and demonstration projects in Texas are underway.

The Texas study showed almost 83 percent of oil and gas companies have or will develop geothermal strategies. Chevron announced last month it was forming a joint venture with Base-load Capital, a geothermal investment firm. One startup, GeoGen Technologies, wants to turn old oil wells into geothermal plants.

State laws make a difference. Almost all current geothermal projects are in California and Nevada, where regulations make them viable. Colorado lawmakers are introducing new rules to encourage geothermal development.

The industry needs the same things as all emerging technologies: development grants, favorable tax treatment, loan guarantees, permitting reform and workforce development. Laws that mandate a certain amount of dispatchable electricity on the grid also help.

Here’s where geothermal competes with natural gas. Texas lawmakers and regulators are obsessed with preventing another statewide blackout. Fossil fuel companies are leveraging that desire for reliability to win concessions for their industry that punish renewable projects.

Geothermal power can do the same job as natural gas but without climate-warming emissions. Geothermal may be more expensive, but lawmakers are not making natural gas companies pay for their methane and carbon emissions.

Will Texas lawmakers tilt the playing field toward the cleaner alternative or the incumbent industry that provides significant campaign donations?

The report’s authors argue Texas can have its cake and eat it too. Every megawatt hour of energy from geothermal sources frees up a megawatt hour’s worth of natural gas for export to Europe, where prices are much higher.

The Europeans, though, have learned a lesson about depending on others for energy. How long they will rely on foreign natural gas is unclear.

Our political leaders have an opportunity. Twenty-five years ago, former Gov. Rick Perry and past legislatures nurtured wind and solar power to make Texas one of the world’s largest renewable energy producers. That support was so successful that fossil fuel companies are lobbying to turn the clock back.

Gov. Greg Abbott and current lawmakers could help Texas companies become global leaders in geothermal energy. But that would involve investing in the future rather than protecting the past.

Chris Tomlinson, named 2021 columnist of the year by the Texas Managing Editors, writes commentary about money, politics and life in Texas. Sign up for his “Tomlinson’s Take” newsletter at TomlinsonNewsletter

Shared from the 1/29/2023 Houston Chronicle eEdition