Breaking Down Geothermal Research, Investment in the West

A geothermal project in Utah is advancing the industry. But, will it get funding beyond 2024? The Sierra Nevada Ally’s executive editor, Noah Glick, chatted with science and technology reporter, Scott King, to learn more about one geothermal field research laboratory in Utah – and how what happens there could have ripples for the industry.

Nevada has committed to providing 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Lawmakers in 2019 set the new renewable energy portfolio standard, with a goal of reaching zero-carbon by 2050.

But, to get there, all forms of renewable energy will need to work together. That includes wind and solar, but also geothermal.

The Sierra Nevada Ally’s executive editor, Noah Glick, chatted with science and technology reporter, Scott King to learn more about one geothermal field research laboratory in Utah – and how what happens there could have ripples for the industry.

Glick: You recently published a story in the Ally that explored a new geothermal project in the West. What did you learn about that project? Give us a quick overview.

King: Yes, so the piece is about the Utah FORGE Project, which is an underground field laboratory based in Milford, Utah. Essentially what they’re seeking to accomplish is to make what’s called an enhanced geothermal system, or EGS possible. An EGS essentially harnesses heat from the interior of the Earth as a renewable resource of energy to power our electric grid. And this is a field research laboratory set to test and de-risk tools in order to move the industry forward. It’s a project that’s funded by the Department of Energy, which recently spotlighted geothermal as the fourth Energy Earth Shot initiative.

Let’s talk a little bit about geothermal. When I think geothermal, I think hot springs, I think geysers, that sort of thing. So, what you’re saying is that we’ve got a group of researchers out in Utah that are looking at how we can essentially use the same methodology to enhance our geothermal capability. Is that right?

That’s what enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) are. For geothermal power to be possible, you really need three key elements: heat, fluid, and permeability within the rock. So, essentially what they do is they drill down through an injection well. Heat is an omnipresent resource in the interior of the earth anywhere between two to four miles down to the interior. You’ll find a lot of natural heat in that rock, but what’s often missing is fluid and permeability. So by injecting fluid through the injection well, they can reopen fractures in pre-fractured rock to initiate that permeability and cycle water throughout the production well. When that heated water, naturally heated water, comes up through that production well, it comes out in the form of steam, which powers a turbine that can create energy for the electric grid.

Geothermal energy is seen as having massive potential. The Department of Energy estimates that it can power 40 million homes nationwide and with this initiative, this geothermal energy Earth Shot initiative, they’re hoping to decrease the cost by 90% to $45 per megawatt hour by 2035. So, geothermal energy can just be one piece in the broader portfolio of renewable energy in a clean energy future.

I think that’s a really important point here. I know that Nevada has a renewable energy portfolio standard of 50% renewable energy by 2030. I know geothermal is a big part of that plan for them, as well as solar, wind and that sort of thing. So knowing that the Department of Energy is also investing pretty heavily in research [and] development in geothermal, especially out here in the West, I mean, that could have a lot of potential for jobs. It could have potential for investment and many other things.

So, what were you hoping to accomplish with this story? What was some of the information you were hoping to get out there?

I was really aiming for this piece to serve as an explainer about the general function of geothermal energy and how it’s really essentially just replicating what’s otherwise a natural process that we see in hot springs and geysers. We hear a lot about fracking for oil and gas, but geothermal energy can essentially quite possibly be a parallel between those industries in terms of extracting energy as a resource. So, this piece was really aiming to kind of explore the functions of how geothermal energy works, as well as some of the opportunities and challenges and really some of the complexities that this industry is facing in order to make enhanced geothermal systems an option for the future.

It sounds like this is still in the research phase of this project, and the idea is that we can learn more about geothermal and I would imagine some better ways to enhance geothermal moving forward. What is it that researchers are looking to figure out here specifically? Do they have any specific goals?

Yes, so the main objectives of the Utah FORGE Project, which I should put a disclaimer out here that Utah FORGE is the shorthand term for the Utah Frontier Observatory for Research and Geothermal Energy. Essentially, what they’re seeking to accomplish primarily is to test and de-risk tools. Obviously, in order to extract heat from the Earth, these tools have to withstand temperatures upwards of 300 degrees Fahrenheit. And so, melting tools is a relatively common issue that you might face when you’re trying to extract energy from an EGS. And that’s why essentially testing and de-risking tools is important to moving that industry forward.

The other component to that is there really aren’t very many private EGS companies out there. And so, that’s why the Department of Energy sees a need for them to step in and fund a research project such as Utah FORGE, as part of their Earth Shot initiatives.

Speaking of the funding from the Department of Energy, do you have any sense of what the future of this project is? Can this project lead to geothermal energy production or what’s the future of this?

Well, believe it or not, this Utah FORGE project is already in its third phase. The first and second phases were largely scoping appropriate sites for a project such as this. The project today, as it stands, is currently funded at $220 million. However, that expires at the conclusion of 2024.

We are just now in the start of 2023, which means the project managers and the project leads at Utah FORGE now have to consider an approaching funding deadline. And that’s why the principal investigator there, Dr. Joseph Moore, is in negotiations currently with the Department of Energy to explore further funding to extend the project to 2032.

I’m not at all suggesting that we wade into the political waters right now and in the debt ceiling and budget talks that are going on in Congress, but I think it’s worth noting that you’ve got a group of Congresspeople who are saying that we need to spend less money, and the discretionary funding that they’re going after would potentially limit scientific research like this. So, you’re saying the funding for this project would run out at the end of 2024 unless there is additional congressional action?

Yes. That is essentially the case. And that’s also the motivating factor that Dr. Moore stressed at a recent webinar that was hosted by the Western Governor’s Association. He spotlighted this project and the need for further funding, because projects like Utah FORGE are pushing the industry forward. If they can demonstrate that we can test and de-risk tools feasibly, then EGS or enhanced geothermal systems can become more economically viable, and it can inspire and motivate the private sector to get involved and further accelerate wider adoption of EGS as a solution for the future.

As a fellow journalist, I understand that there’s always something extra that you wish you could have gotten in a story. There’s always that extra bit of info that just couldn’t quite make it. So, was there anything left out of your story on our website that you wish you could have explored more of here? Here’s your chance to share some of that.

I appreciated the opportunity to learn a lot about geothermal energy and the potential that it has in serving a role in a renewable energy future and for our country to reach its climate goals. It really has massive potential to play that role. That being said, there are some other inherent risks and challenges that make EGS a challenge in the future. With drilling naturally, you run the risk of what’s called induced seismicity, or a chance of incidentally causing earthquakes. Geothermal energy in general has a lot of overhead costs in the beginning of a project. On the flip side of that, it’s relatively low cost in terms of maintenance, so really it’s just getting over those initial overhead costs at the start of a project to really make this an economically viable project for each plant.

And then the other aspect of it too is just kind of the lack of industry motivation. It would be interesting to explore further with the parallels between the traditional fossil fuel energy infrastructure and how we can parallel workforces and transmission lines and infrastructure in general of these power plants, and how that can parallel to an enhanced geothermal system as an option for the future.

Speaking of the future, what are you, what’s on your horizon? What are you looking toward next?

In doing this piece on Utah FORGE and geothermal energy, that really ties into the broader picture of what the Department of Energy is taking on right now, which is their Energy Earthshots. So previously I’ve covered offshore wind, which was their fifth Energy Earthshot, and geothermal energy was released as their fourth Energy Earthshot.

As I’ve been covering energy, particularly in the Mountain West for the past several years, one key point that keeps getting iterated to me over and over by these experts and researchers and scientists, is that there is no one stop solution in a renewable energy future. Each different renewable energy resource has different strengths. And so the idea of exploring the different components and elements, strengths and weaknesses of each of these renewable energy resources is something that will be interesting to explore as this industry moves forward, and as our country seeks to accomplish its renewable energy goals and climate change goals.

Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He has a Master’s degree in Media Innovation from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing with a minor in Marketing from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Scott served for two years as a literacy instructor with the Peace Corps in the community of Gouyave, Grenada. Support his work.

Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting, factual news, and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.


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