Utah keeps the dream of geothermal energy alive.

Utah keeps the dream of geothermal energy alive.

The Quest for Geothermal Energy: Tapping into a Vast Untapped Green Energy Source

WIRED feature article

If you haven’t already, go and read the WIRED feature article “A Vast Untapped Green Energy Source Is Hiding Beneath Your Feet,” which details the quest to tap into geothermal energy using drilling techniques originally developed for fracking gas. In this captivating piece, WIRED senior writer Gregory Barber follows Joseph Moore, a geologist at the University of Utah, on his quest to work out how to drill down thousands of feet into hot, dense granite before using water to extract geothermal energy. This article will provide further background information and in-depth insights into the story, discussing whether “enhanced” geothermal systems (EGS) are really going to uncork a clean-energy bonanza.

The Origins of the Technology

I had the opportunity to ask Gregory Barber how he first came across the technology at the heart of this story. He explained that his initial interest was sparked while researching geothermal heating systems, which are much shallower and easier to access. These systems directly heat homes and businesses using warmed-up water and have been growing in popularity as people seek alternatives to natural gas, particularly in Europe. While delving deeper into this topic, Barber discovered a Department of Energy experiment focused on electricity generation through enhanced geothermal systems. Unlike the shallow systems, EGS require more expensive and deeper drilling to access higher temperatures. The DOE had just selected a team in Utah to take on this exciting endeavor.

The Confluence of Factors

Many wonder why geothermal energy is gaining traction now, considering its existence for decades. Barber attributes this recent surge of interest to a confluence of factors. One significant factor is the 20-year fracking boom, which revolutionized drilling techniques for extracting gas from hot and hard rocks — the same rocks relevant to geothermal systems. Previously, the risks associated with drilling for geothermal energy, such as incomplete cracks or triggering earthquakes, made it an expensive and uncertain endeavor. However, thanks to the advancements in drilling techniques, the risks have significantly decreased, making enhanced geothermal systems a more feasible and potentially lucrative energy source.

Optimism and Challenges in Mitigating Climate Change

As someone who frequently writes about efforts to address climate change with alternative energy and solutions like carbon capture, I asked Gregory Barber about his optimism regarding these projects. While he believes that these projects have useful applications, he highlights the importance of considering how these fuels are produced and used. Barber draws parallels to the perennial debate surrounding biofuels, which can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions by utilizing land that could otherwise remain wild. Additionally, there is concern that such alternative energy solutions may simply delay the transition to electric power. Carbon capture, another potential solution, has proven to be expensive and often inefficient when applied to coal plants, making it more practical to shut them down and replace them with solar panels. Furthermore, the long-term stability of storing gases underground, essential for carbon capture, raises concerns similar to those surrounding underground storage for radioactive waste. Ensuring the reliability of such solutions over generations remains a challenge.

The Case for Enhanced Geothermal Systems

Considering that solar and wind energy require less upfront costs, I asked whether the continuous nature of enhanced geothermal systems would be enough for it to take off or if we need multiple approaches to kick fossil fuels entirely. The key question is whether EGS can compete with options like building nuclear plants, dams, or implementing carbon capture in natural gas plants. Experts argue that baseload power, available 24/7, is critical for future energy needs. While solar and wind power require vast amounts of land, and as optimal sites become scarce, the efficiency of EGS becomes increasingly attractive. Although batteries can store renewable energy, they are not the most efficient alternative. However, it is still too early to determine the practicality of EGS compared to other energy sources. Furthermore, while EGS promises to be less ecologically destructive than existing geothermal plants that have harmed ecosystems and hot springs, it is not inherently free of potential conflicts.

In conclusion, the quest to tap into geothermal energy using enhanced geothermal systems holds great potential. Advancements in drilling techniques, influenced by the fracking boom, have significantly reduced risks and costs associated with extracting geothermal energy. However, the success of such projects relies on careful consideration of environmental impacts, the long-term storage of gases, and competition with other alternative energy sources. While EGS shows promise as a continuous and reliable energy source, a multifaceted approach is necessary to effectively transition away from fossil fuels. The journey to uncork a clean-energy bonanza continues, and researchers and scientists are dedicated to unlocking the vast untapped green energy source beneath our feet.