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Texas: Geothermal capital?

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A report from researchers at five universities says Texas’ abundant resources of underground heat and its oil and gas history make it ideal for geothermal growth spurt that could rival the fracking boom.

ENERGYWIRE | Texas has enough geothermal potential to decarbonize 100 percent of its grid and foster a new energy industry in the state, according to a recent report released by state universities and the International Energy Agency.

The report released last month says Texas’ abundant resource of underground heat and its oil and gas history make it ideal for a geothermal growth spurt that could rival the hydraulic fracturing boom. Tapping geothermal potential in Texas could also solve the problems of the state’s troubled electricity grid by offering a renewable baseload power source, researchers say.

Michael Webber, a report co-author and a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, said that geothermal power has “grid value” that could address some of the problems exposed during a 2021 winter storm that led to widespread blackouts and the deaths of more than 200 people. While that storm saw gas and coal plants succumb to freezing weather, geothermal provides power “often with lower costs and without emissions and fuel reliability costs,” Webber said on a call with reporters.

Geothermal power would tap the internal heat of the Earth to run power plants or use heat for industrial applications like manufacturing. Globally, it’s estimated that subterranean heat could provide enough power to meet twice the current energy demand, but reaching the resource requires drilling deep underground — a technically challenging venture.

The report — written by researchers from UT Austin, Southern Methodist University, Rice University, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston — found that the state could surpass that hurdle because of its widespread experience with drilling technology. Some of the largest Texas cities — including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and El Paso — also are located over ground resources where temperatures are above 200 degrees Celsius at a 6.5-kilometer depth, which oil and gas companies can access.

Those temperatures are able to support a power plant, which would allow developers to build power sources near high-demand areas at a time when the state is seeking reliable electricity generation, the report said.

The state’s growth of wind and solar resources has led to concerns of power shortages when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining. The state’s Public Utility Commission and main grid operator are pushing a market reform proposal that would promote dispatchable power sources — like natural gas and nuclear plants — to ensure periods of high demand can be met (Energywire, Jan. 23).

Webber said geothermal — which does not have the same intermittency problems — could fit that bill, while having the added benefit of freeing up natural gas that would be used in power plants for other sources. “The rise of geothermal doesn’t mean the death of oil and gas,” he said. “It allows that oil and gas [companies] would have more molecules to sell to more people.” More natural gas could be exported abroad from Texas ports if the state was relying more on geothermal, he said.

The growth of geothermal also could build on the fracking boom that filled the pockets of oil and gas companies, the report said. Technologies and innovations like directional drilling and fracking could be applied to tap geothermal resources. Existing wells could even be used to tap heat, reducing the industry’s environmental impact.

Researchers interviewed executives at 15 oil and gas industry majors. Nearly 80 percent of them said their companies had a geothermal strategy or were developing one. Two-thirds of those interviewed said the industry could solve any technical challenges in geothermal development.

Jamie Beard, editor of the study, said that until recently, those companies have shown little public interest in geothermal technology because of its high cost. The shift, she said, has happened “very, very quickly for an industry as big and usually conservative as oil and gas.”
“There are comparisons made to the growth and scale of the shale boom and how geothermal could achieve that level of scale,” added Beard, the executive director of the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at UT Austin.

There are many obstacles facing geothermal power, including in Texas. The technology has been used for electricity generation since the early 1960s, but it contributes a small percentage of U.S. power, partially because of engineering challenges and competitive prices for wind and solar. In 2021, geothermal power plants accounted for 0.4 percent of the country’s total utility-scale electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Hossein Emadibaladehi, an associate professor in the department of petroleum engineering at Texas Tech University, said the current state of the geothermal industry makes it hard to see rapid growth. Drilling to depths to reach the temperatures is quite expensive, he said, and it will likely take significant drilling technology advances to bring down the cost enough to make it competitive. “In order to reduce the price, you need new research and new tools to make drilling more effective,” said Emadibaladehi, who was not involved in the Texas report. “I know the federal government is investing money, but I don’t know how much the private sector is going to do.”

Supporters of the technology say they are hopeful the tide could be turning. The Inflation Reduction Act signed by President Joe Biden last year made geothermal projects eligible for the same 30 percent tax credit that has helped wind and solar. In 2022, the Department of Energy announced an Energy Earthshots project to reduce the cost of enhanced geothermal systems by 90 percent by 2035.

In a report released in January, National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers found that such a price drop could result in the installation of more than 90 gigawatts of geothermal by 2050, enough to account for more than 12 percent of the nation’s annual energy generation.
The Texas report, meanwhile, found that drilling 1.4 million geothermal wells globally between 2030 and 2050 would meet 77 percent of the world’s projected electricity demand.

The Texas report is designed to be a model for similar studies of geothermal resources in Idaho, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah backed by Project Innerspace, a nonprofit promoting geothermal work. The work also comes as the Western Governors’ Association is developing a study of geothermal potential across Western states.

Barry Smitherman, chairman and president of the Texas Geothermal Energy Alliance, said that a number of factors have contributed to make geothermal more appealing, including federal support. Volatile natural gas prices have led to more interest in alternative power sources, and oil companies that once ignored geothermal as an option now see a more viable business case.

The “renewed focus on grid reliability,” Smitherman added, offers a policy opening. “This legislative session you’ll see a lot of discussion of firm, dispatchable resources. I think we can play that role,” said Smitherman, who previously served on the Texas Public Utility Commission and chaired the Texas Railroad Commission from 2011 to 2014. Smitherman is backing a state bill that would clarify that landowners have control of their underground geothermal resources, which supporters say could promote power production.

The Texas report says more policy incentives could boost the industry, including a state tax regime that better rewards renewable power and the creation of dedicated offices to study geothermal potential. “To achieve the outcomes reported, we would need an Apollo-style mobilization of effort globally, but that is what climate change requires of us,” said study editor Beard in a statement. “We’ve done Apollo before — let’s do it again.”