Think Out Loud

Geothermal technology breakthrough in Nevada could boost the nation’s use of renewable energy

By Dave Miller (OPB) and Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 7, 2023 6:22 p.m. Updated: Aug. 7, 2023 8:48 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Aug. 7

Geothermal energy is a renewable energy resource with enormous potential, but the number of plants has been limited by several factors. However, a breakthrough in geothermal technology that was announced recently in Nevada could change that. Industry officials say it could mean a huge increase in the percentage of electricity that’s generated from the heat beneath our feet. And some western states are gearing up to make the transition more possible. Seattle-based environmental reporter Alex Brown joins us to share more about his reporting for the non-profit news service Stateline.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with a breakthrough in geothermal energy. It was announced recently in Nevada. Industry officials say that this new technology could mean a huge increase in the percentage of electricity that’s generated from the heat underground. Some Western states are gearing up to make this more possible. Alex Brown has been covering this issue. He is a Seattle-based environmental reporter for the nonprofit News Service Stateline, and he joins us now. Alex Brown, welcome.

Alex Brown: Thanks for having me on.

Miller: Can you just give us the basics here? I mean, what is geothermal energy?

Brown: Yeah. Geothermal energy is a clean energy source. It’s produced by underground heat. So in the simplest terms, there’s these hot spots underground. In some places where there is some accessibility, companies are able to pipe up steam to power turbines and produce electricity. So historically, geothermal energy production makes up a very limited portion of the US energy supply and that’s because it’s traditionally been limited to places known as hydrothermal resources. I think places where you might see geysers on the landscape, where you have those hot spots at relatively shallow depths and you have very permeable rock and liquid reservoirs underground where you have that steam already being produced where that’s somewhat easier to access.

So the breakthrough that’s been announced recently is known as ‘enhanced geothermal.’ It’s been discussed for a long time and for a lot of folks in the industry, this is kind of ahead of schedule. This company, Fervo Energy, has demonstrated the first commercially viable enhanced geothermal, and what this does is they’re using drilling techniques perfected in the oil and gas industry going in, drilling horizontally essentially, instead of needing to find an area where that permeable rock already exists, they’re able to create that permeability and then access those hot spots, pipe in water or liquid and then kind of create that steam instead of finding places where it’s already accessible. For folks in the industry, for state policy leaders that are really excited about geothermal, this really opens up the landscape for where production is possible.

Dave Miller: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier; you said ‘it’s ahead of schedule,’ according to some analysts. I mean, what were people expecting in terms of a timeline?

Brown: It would probably depend a lot on who you ask. But I know for folks in the industry who I’ve been talking to on this issue for years, for some folks, this was seen as maybe decades away. Maybe for the folks working closely on projects like this, they had a notion that they were close. But certainly, this is something that had been talked about for a long time as kind of once accomplished or really proven out as the technology that would really open up the potential for geothermal power production on a much bigger scale than we see today.

Miller: What is the connection between hydraulic fracturing, which as you know has been used to drill for oil or natural gas in very effective ways in terms of bringing those fossil fuels out of the ground, but also destructive ways in terms of the environmental consequences. What’s the connection between that kind of fracturing and this new method of geothermal technology?

Brown: I don’t think we would be seeing these advances in geothermal without kind of what has been pioneered in the oil and gas industry. In fact, you’ll see a lot of people in geothermal in this kind of new clean energy sector with extensive backgrounds in oil and gas. So the hydraulic fracturing that’s been perfected in these shale fields is very similar to what’s being used now for enhanced geothermal.

I think a lot of the potential downsides or the things that have gotten pushed back in terms of the chemicals used in fracking, not so much with geothermal production. I think it’s a little bit different but certainly the concerns in terms of maybe seismic activity. We might see a rising if this sort of geothermal production does expand.

Miller: I wanna come back to this issue of concerns directly from the fracking. But, there are some political questions first. You talked to Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis about this. What did you hear from him – and what has been happening in Colorado?

Brown: Colorado has really been a leader on this. Governor Polis is the chair of the Western Governors Association and it’s been his big initiative during his tenure to really grow interest and work on policy to support geothermal expansion. So he’s done that both in his role as the governor in Colorado and also convening this group of Western leaders.

So in Colorado, there’s been a lot of work to establish a really clear regulatory framework, designate one state agency as having that permitting authority, having clear guidelines for prospective developers that want to come in and drill instead of navigating a whole maze of state agencies and unclear regulations. Also a lot of work in terms of tax credits and loan programs and making some resources available to make it attractive for developers to come in, especially given the very high cost of initial drilling that can really be a deterrent.

As the chair of the Western Governors’ Association, he’s really encouraged a lot of similar looks in other Western states, brought together a lot of industry leaders and that has been kind of a consistent call from the industry from renewable energy advocates that there really does need to be more state support and better guidelines, permitting structures if the industry is really going to get off the ground.

Miller: Have other Western states followed his lead?

Brown: In fits and starts, yes; certainly it depends a lot, state by state. New Mexico passed a pretty comprehensive package earlier this year. It was surprisingly pocket vetoed by the governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, and I know advocates there are working pretty hard to figure out what her concerns are and try to revive this. But it was also similar in terms of getting a more clear permitting framework, getting more staff at the regulatory agency to process those permits, and then making some loan and grant opportunities available to prospective developers.

Miller: Although I guess it’s worth just talking briefly about the timeline here. I mean, this company, Fervo Energy, a Texas-based company, it was just last month that they announced this big breakthrough. So I suppose it’s possible that in the wake of that announcement, more states could follow Colorado’s lead.


Brown: Yeah, that’s certainly what we’ll be watching for. There’s definitely been growing interest, just over the last couple of years in a lot of Western states, certainly with this initiative, even before this breakthrough was announced, in terms of growing geothermal with existing hydrothermal resources. And I would imagine also in anticipation of the day that enhanced geothermal did become possible. So it will be really interesting to see if more states throughout the west, especially where there’s a lot more access to heat at shallow depths. . .Kind of seeing the potential landscape opening up for geothermal really start to come on board in terms of a policy framework and maybe some financial support for the industry.

Miller: Is there new momentum for geothermal energy in Oregon or Washington right now?

Brown: I would say the focus, or at least in the last legislative session, is aligned a little more closely with what we’ve seen in Eastern states where there’s a lot of potential for geothermal for heating and cooling. So Oregon lawmakers this past session approved, I think $18 million in bond funding to help Oregon Tech renovate a geothermal heat system that provides heat and hot water for the entire campus. It’s a pretty old school technology, but we’re seeing kind of a renewed interest in this idea that you can heat a campus or in some cases, you can heat neighborhoods or towns with this, just piping up heat from below ground instead of using gas pipelines. So that that has been kind of where the attention has been, at least in this past legislative session.

But certainly following this development last month with enhanced geothermal, the continued interest in expanding clean energy in Oregon and Washington, would not be surprised at all, to see some growing momentum for lawmakers to address this.

Miller: Alex, so you’re talking earlier about differences in what this might look like, broadly, in the Western US, compared to the Eastern US. What’s the difference?

Brown: So it has to do with geology and I wouldn’t claim to be an expert there. But certainly, in many Western states, if you look at maps of where there’s access to geothermal resources, most of the hotspots show up in Western states and that means where the heat underground is at shallower depth. So it’s a little more accessible for drilling, it’s a little more cost effective to get to.

In Eastern states, there’s a few spots like that. West Virginia, particularly, where state lawmakers have been working to set up a regulatory scheme to allow for geothermal energy drilling. But right now in most Eastern states, it’s not yet economical to harness geothermal for electricity production. There is great potential and a lot of policy interests in geothermal for heating and cooling.

Miller: Can you give us a sense for just how much geothermal energy there is right now in terms of our nation’s power grid? I’m wondering now about scale.

Brown: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I think it depends on who you ask or how it’s defined. I mean, the heat underground is near limitless in terms of the power it could provide. It’s just a matter of what’s economical and cost effective to tap into and how soon we can get there. Industry leaders I spoke with at Fervo, following this breakthrough with enhanced geothermal, and kind of looking at places on the landscape where enhanced geothermal really has a chance to come online. Their estimates are on the order of about 20% of US electricity supply, which is quite a bit larger than the less than half of the percent that geothermal is providing today.

Miller: I mean, obviously they have a vested interest in saying that we are on the cusp of a revolution. But 20%... I mean, that is a revolution.

Brown: That’s right. And certainly as the country as a whole is transitioning to renewable sources trying to get off of fossil fuels and have a clean power supply. There’s a lot of interest in having those stable, ‘baseload power sources’ that are always on, as more and more of the grid is dependent on wind and solar – certainly those are sources that vary quite a bit from, from hour to hour, day to day, month to month. A lot of states are investing in battery storage to capture some of that surplus and then put it back onto the grid at night when solar drops off a little bit. But there is a growing interest in having that resiliency, the reliability of having those ‘always on’ power sources. And a lot of people see potential for geothermal to do that in a way that doesn’t generate emissions,

Miller: Right. Because one of the other options we’ve heard about from the natural gas industry is, ‘Hey, don’t forget about us. We can be the ‘always on’ helper when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining or the reservoirs aren’t full.’ But this would be an actually a zero emissions way to provide that same base load.

I want to turn back to these questions about fracking. How different might the environmental repercussions of fracking be for geothermal electricity as opposed to drilling for oil and gas?

Brown: That’s a really good question. I’m certainly not a technical expert. I know there’s been local opposition to some projects based on similar concerns, but I do feel that the geothermal drilling has not yet gotten that same level of pushback opposition that fracking for oil and gas has. And it’s kind of unclear if that’s because it’s using slightly different techniques, different chemicals, maybe the industry and this sort of drilling is still in such a new stage that it just hasn’t yet generated that attention and opposition or maybe people are willing to look down the way a little bit more when it’s the clean energy supply as opposed to a fossil fuel.

Miller: Well, this also gets us to the question of the timeline here because as you said, one of the possibilities is people haven’t been complaining because this has not really been used much yet. There is that one test case which has proven successful in Nevada, but it’s not like this is under people’s homes all over the country right now.

What is a possible timeline? I mean, how quickly might companies like Fervo, or I suppose, their competitors, how long might it be before they would be able to actually scale this up in large commercial projects?

Brown: Yeah, that’s the big question. I think that the industry folks will certainly tell you that will depend a lot on the kind of support they get from policy makers and states and the federal government in terms of enabling a permitting scheme that gets them online and allows them to drill. I can tell you Fervo is looking at another project already. This initial announcement is a fairly small pilot project, but they’re working on one in Utah that they say will be able to power 300,000 homes by 2028. So that’s just one project they’re working on.

A lot of other companies are gonna try to get pretty aggressive now that this has been announced. But yeah, the question of how fast it can scale up, especially as increasing portions of the grid are relying on wind and solar is really the big question.

Miller: Alex, thanks very much.

Brown: Thanks for having me on.

Miller: Alex Brown is a Seattle-based environmental reporter for Stateline. It is a nonprofit news service focused on state policy issues all around the country.

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