Energy Excursions

The Future of Geothermal

You only need to stand near an erupting geyser, or visit a volcano to experience the immense power of Earth’s geothermal energy resource. And it is everywhere. At any point on Earth, if you drill deep enough, you reach temperatures sufficient to produce electricity. Geothermal is an untapped subsurface energy giant. How can we tap into this underused resource?1Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). Introduction: Environmental Considerations and Impact. The Future of Geothermal in Texas. p. 18. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

Comparison of total heat energy in Earth’s crust, compared to fissionable materials, and fossil fuels. Note that total fossil fuels, when compared with crustal thermal energy, is the equivalent of less than one pixel at the bottom of the graphic.
Comparison of total heat energy in Earth’s crust (geothermal energy resources), compared to fissionable materials (nuclear energy resources), and fossil fuels (oil and gas energy resources). Note that total fossil fuels, when compared with crustal thermal energy, is the equivalent of less than one pixel at the bottom of the graphic.2Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). Introduction: Environmental Considerations and Impact. The Future of Geothermal in Texas. p. 19. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

Will the Future of Geothermal Take us by Surprise?

According to the authors of The Future of Geothermal in Texas, new technologies and methods emerging from and perfected by the oil and gas industry over the past twenty years, such as horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and managed pressure drilling, have proven so disruptive that over the past decade they have rearranged global geopolitics and propelled the United States into energy independence3Olien, R. M. (2022). Oil and Gas Industry. Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/oil-and-gas-industry.. But these disruptive technologies and ways of working in oil and gas have just barely begun to be applied to geothermal resources, and when these technologies are transferred through oil and gas industry engagement in geothermal, we should expect, and even plan for, breakthrough impact, and fast, exponential leaps in capabilities and performance in the years to come.4Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). Introduction: Environmental Considerations and Impact. The Future of Geothermal in Texas. p. 19. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

The full potential of geothermal energy can be realized through creation of new well technologies and retrofitting of existing wells, hybridization with other renewables, novel power-generation resources and technologies, and community-based heating, cooling, and resilience.
The full potential of geothermal energy can be realized through creation of new well technologies and retrofitting of existing wells, hybridization with other renewables, novel power-generation resources and technologies, and community-based heating, cooling, and resilience.5U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023, March 27). Full Steam Ahead: Unearthing the Power of Geothermal. https://www.nrel.gov/news/features/2023/full-steam-ahead-unearthing-the-power-of-geothermal.html

Most, if not all geothermal analyses over the years have failed to take into account the swift and dramatic impact oil and gas industry engagement would have in geothermal development and scale over the coming decades. As a result of either underestimation, or failure to acknowledge the impact of technology transfer, fast innovation, and engagement at scale by the oil and gas industry, geothermal growth lingers consistently in single or low double digit growth over the coming decades in energy transition reports and models (for example the U.S. Energy Information Administration6U.S. Energy Information Administration – EIA. (2022). Annual Energy Outlook 2022. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/).7Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). Introduction: Environmental Considerations and Impact. The Future of Geothermal in Texas. p. 19-20. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

Much like the rise of unconventionals, whose sudden ascent largely took the world by surprise, geothermal is poised for similar, exponential growth should technology development and transfer follow the footsteps of the shale boom. Given increasing oil and gas industry engagement in the geothermal space, this possibility should no longer be overlooked as the world searches for energy transition strategies. Globally scalable geothermal development looks increasingly approachable to oil and gas entities if the past several decades of expertise are fully leveraged and optimized for geothermal development8Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). Introduction: Environmental Considerations and Impact. The Future of Geothermal in Texas. p. 20. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

Geothermal and the Public

We use energy in electrical and thermal forms every day; energy is vital to our way of life. The reliance of our every day lives on immediate access to electricity has become more appreciated by society as the news profiles grids that are no longer functioning as a result of storms, ice, extreme heat, or other unanticipated situations. Recent polling data shows that geothermal is a uniquely bipartisan technology that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents wish to see greater emphasis on. Data suggests we have a long way to go in familiarizing the public with geothermal, particularly in states where the resource has no surface manifestations, and is effectively invisible.9Data for Progress – DFP. (2022). Texas Voters, Feeling the Pinch of High Home Energy Prices, Support Investments to Improve the
Grid. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from https://www.dataforprogress.org/blog/2022/9/30/texas-voters-feeling-the-pinch-ofhigh-
home-energy-prices-support-investments-to-improve-the-grid.
10Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation – CETI. (2021). Texas Clean Energy Online Survey. Retrieved November 29, 2022, fromhttps://www.conservativetexansforenergyinnovation.org/2021-polling-page/11Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). Introduction: Environmental Considerations and Impact. The Future of Geothermal in Texas. p. 19. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

As activity now seen with development projects moves toward commercially viable projects, the public will begin to have a more tangible appreciation of the contributions of geothermal resources to our every day lives. Visuals of geothermal wells and power plants will also become a component of the public portfolio. Drilling of a well, as shown in the figure below, would not surprise people from an oil and gas producing state like Texas or Oklahoma, yet the fact that the well is being drilled for geothermal is likely unknown to the typical member of the public.

A Sage Geosystems demonstration project in 2022 located near McAllen in South Texas
A Sage Geosystems demonstration project in 2022 located near McAllen in South Texas. Could projects like this one move geothermal to its next phase of contribution to the energy portfolio of the United States?12Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). The Future of Geothermal in Texas. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

Slow Growth + Big Need = Huge Potential

The growth of the geothermal energy sector seems to be slow. The lack of policies to expedite the permitting and inherent financial risks associated with resource exploration and development have slowed the expansion of geothermal power. Approximately 6 gigawatts (GW) of capacity will be added from 2022 to 2027, mainly concentrated in Africa and Southeast Asia. To put that into perspective, the installed capacity for ERCOT, the independent operator supplying 90% of power to Texans, is 92 GW13Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). The Future of Geothermal in Texas. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas. The United States leads the world as the country with the highest capacity in the power generation sector, with a nameplate capacity of ~3.8 GW14ThinkGeoEnergy. 2023, June 29. https://www.thinkgeoenergy.com/thinkgeoenergys-top-10-geothermal-countries-2022-power-generation-capacity-mw. China leads in the geothermal heat pump sector.15Rudgard, O. (2022, November 30). China Is Leading the World on Heat-Pump Adoption. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-11-30/china-is-leading-the-world-on-heat-pump-adoption

The world’s installed electricity capacity stands at ~7 terawatts (=7,000 GW). That’s about 1,000 times the amount of geothermal geothermal capacity that may be added to the grid in the next 5 years or so. The global electricity generation capacity is expected to more than double in the next three decades, surpassing 14 terawatts (=14,000 GW) by 2050.16Statista. (2023, April 19). Projected electricity generation capacity worldwide from 2020 to 2050. https://www.statista.com/statistics/859178/projected-world-electricity-generation-capacity-by-energy-source/

The current International Energy Agency’s scenario for geothermal electrical energy contribution to the global energy mix is 1% by 2050. In a scenario with 70,000 geothermal wells drilled annually from 2030-2050 (each well with a 10 MW output), geothermal could contribute 77% of the global electrical energy mix.17Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). The Future of Geothermal in Texas. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas When you consider that about 60,000-70,000 wells are drilled onshore across the globe each year, that number doesn’t seem out of line.18Rystad Energy. (2021, March 23). 118,500 Oil & Gas Wells To Be Drilled Worldwide Through 2022. https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/118500-Oil-Gas-Wells-To-Be-Drilled-Worldwide-Through-2022.html19Beard, J.C., and Jones, B.A., eds. (2023, May 1). The Future of Geothermal in Texas. https://energy.utexas.edu/research/geothermal-texas

Clearly there is a huge potential for geothermal to contribute to the world’s electricity needs. The current workforce in geothermal in insufficient to grow the industry. Maybe you will be a part of the geothermal future?

In order to have geothermal contribute more than 70% of the global electrical energy mix by 2050, how many geothermal wells (at 10 MW each) would need to be drilled annually over 20 years?

700 wells

Incorrect

Think much more.

10,000 wells

Incorrect

Think more.

70,000 wells

Correct

When you consider that about 60,000–70,000 wells are drilled onshore across the globe each year, that number doesn't seem out of line.

250,000 wells

Incorrect

We won't need that many in this scenario.

Career Spotlight: Jamie Beard

Jamie Beard

Academic Background

  • B.S. Industrial Technology, Appalachia State University, 2002
  • J.D. Boston University School of Law, 2007

An attorney, Jamie received her J.D. from Boston University. Ms. Beard is a leader in the geothermal energy industry, having served as the executive director for two organizations pushing the envelope in the geothermal industry. Jamie founded the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization funded by the U.S. Department of Energy at The University of Texas at Austin, with the objective to build a thriving geothermal ecosystem within the oil and gas industry. She also founded and serves as the executive director of Project InnerSpace, a 501(c)3 nonprofit based in Houston, TX. Through Project InnerSpace’s work, Jamie focuses on developing and increasing geothermal energy production across the world. She achieves this mission by connecting many sectors to accelerate the timeframe of geothermal development through efficient, cost-effective strategies.20Texas Geothermal Institute. [n.d.]. About the Texas Geothermal Institute. https://www.texasgeo.org/team

Jamie Beard on the cover of Wired magazine 2023

Listen to Jamie narrate an animation on deep supercritical geothermal well technology with a video created by the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin.21Texas Geothermal Institute. [n.d.]. About the Texas Geothermal Institute. https://www.texasgeo.org/team

Image Credits

Oklahoma Academic Standards
TEKS Standards
College Board Units and Topics
Next Generation Science Standards