By James Pethokoukis and Jamie Beard
Is the future of clean energy right beneath our feet? By tapping into the infrastructure and expertise of the oil and gas industry, geothermal energy could deliver a scalable fossil fuel alternative. On a recent episode of “Political Economy,” Jamie Beard discussed the exciting future of geothermal, its environmental implications, and the role government can play in furthering this technology.
Jamie is the founder and executive director of the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at the University of Texas at Austin.
Pethokoukis: Could you describe the suite of technologies we are talking about with geothermal?
A lot of geothermal in the world that exists today is where geothermal resources are close to the surface and have surface manifestations. That’s typically called “hydrothermal geothermal,” and it’s been around for well more than 100 years. But that’s not the only option for geothermal anymore. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve had some pretty significant technological leaps: the shale boom and the directional drilling technologies and fracking technologies that came out of that, but also offshore exploration and development.
So if you take those technologies and you leverage them and you apply them to geothermal, we can actually enable all kinds of geothermal concepts now. We’re engineering the subsurface to mimic Iceland, for instance, with the goal of being able to do that anywhere in the world that we need energy. And then we’ve got advanced geothermal systems — or closed loop systems —where fracturing is not used. Directional drilling technologies are used instead. You’re essentially drilling radiators into rock and harvesting heat that way. There are a lot of ways these two types of things are combined to create different systems, as well, so a lot of innovation is happening in this space.
What are the particular advantages of this technology over both what we already have and the next generation of nuclear?
For one, geothermal is baseload. It’s 24/7. You don’t need energy storage for geothermal. That is a big deal. Having a clean baseload source of energy in the very near term is an exciting prospect. Geothermal also has a tiny footprint compared to other renewables. If you look at sources of clean energy, the geothermal footprint, comparatively megawatt to megawatt, is about 1 percent of that of solar and wind. Geothermal per megawatt also creates three or four times more jobs than other renewables do.
Next-gen nuclear is exciting, but here’s the deal: It’s really expensive. Just to get it ready, we’re talking about just massive investments of billions of dollars. For geothermal to be ready for prime time — meaning we’re getting teams into the field, getting technologies demonstrated, full-scale, get oil and gas engaged and start scaling this thing — it’s a drop in a bucket comparatively in terms of what’s needed for investments. About maybe a half a billion dollars worth of field deployments might get us to a place for geothermal where we could have a scalable concept ready to go, and we’d be off on another shale boom, but this time for clean energy.
What do you tell people who are concerned about the climate, but they’re also worried about the environmental impact of geothermal?
I think we need to have eyes wide open when it comes to the supply chains that we’re leaning on for renewable energy investment and development. In particular, when it comes to lithium mining and energy storage, I don’t think that the world understands the impact and what that’s going to mean if we mine much as we need to mine over the next two decades to meet current climate goals, just in terms of energy storage, not to mention rare-Earths that are needed to develop solar and wind.
Seismicity is something that we need to pay a lot of attention to as geothermal development scales and goes global, because we don’t want to be producing man-made earthquakes with our power plants. So I think this is an “eyes wide open” moment in terms of translating oil and gas knowledge from fracking into geothermal. When I step back and look at our choices, in terms of clean energy technologies, would I rather risk-mitigate seismicity and do that in a measured, standardized way, than mine a ton of lithium and rare earth? Yeah. I would rather do that because I think it’s a manageable risk that has less impact on the environment.
Does this sector need more government research? Does it need deregulation?
I think there are two major opportunities. Most of the low-hanging fruit, at least in the United States, for geothermal development is on federal land, and it’s currently harder to develop a geothermal project on federal land than it is an oil and gas project. Geothermal development is subject to NEPA and it does not have a categorical exclusion like oil and gas development does.
Should the government invest more money in geothermal? Of course. Geothermal has been under-resourced forever. It has never enjoyed the subsidies or appropriations that any other energy source has gotten, specifically in renewables, by orders of magnitude. I’m not sure we should be dumping a lot of dollars right now into lab based research. It would be helpful to do some, but the high impact stuff right now for geothermal is funding teams into the field. We need demonstrations.
If we brought you back 15 years from now, what will have gone wrong, if none of this has happened?
In my view, I think we have a narrow window to get oil and gas excited about doing this. If we miss that window, and oil and gas decides to pivot into solar and wind and hydrogen and doesn’t really pay much attention to geothermal, geothermal is never going to scale fast enough to be competitive with solar and wind. It will always be behind. So it will be irrelevant, eventually. In my view, the only way to catch up and scale this fast enough is getting the oil and gas industry engaged and excited. If that doesn’t happen soon, it doesn’t matter if it ever happens — it’ll never happen. My urgency is to not only engage with oil and gas about it, but also try to get them into the field doing projects so they can get excited internally about doing it. Not just invest in startups on the side and watch, but actually get into the field and get some learning. I view failure as failure to attract the perfect suitor to scale this industry in time to make it happen.
James Pethokoukis is the Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he writes and edits the AEIdeas blog and hosts a weekly podcast, “Political Economy with James Pethokoukis.” Jamie Beard is the founder and executive director of the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at the University of Texas at Austin.