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Improved geothermal energy could be the next zero carbon hero | Pillsbury – Gravel2Gavel Construction and real estate law

Hydrogen, solar energy, wind and even microwave rays from space are just some of the alternative energy sources being explored as the world tries to reduce carbon emissions. It appears that recent advances in geothermal energy technologies have the potential to greatly expand the reach of geothermal energy. These new methods, variously referred to as engineered, enhanced, or advanced geothermal systems (collectively referred to here as EGS), have recently made advances in scalability and attracted the attention of changemakers, and if successful, could position EGS to play a major role in transition to clean energy. The technique is emissions-free and virtually unconstrained (it draws on heat generated by the Earth’s core) and can provide constant baseload power, making it attractive to environmentally conscious investors. The article highlights the progress and diversity of EGS projects and proposals, which Pillsbury sees as part of the ongoing energy transition.

Geothermal energy has attracted humans for a long time, with Paleo-Americans settling in the hot springs around 10,000 years ago. In 1892, Boise, Idaho, became the first city to operate a district heating system, which brought naturally occurring hot water from the ground to homes. It would take another 70 years for other cities to repeat this feat, but currently 17 U.S. counties use such systems, as well as dozens more around the world.

Despite these successes, traditional geothermal systems are geographically limited to areas with naturally occurring hydrothermal resources, where natural heat, groundwater, and permeability converge near the Earth’s surface. As a result, despite its potential as a source of clean baseload energy, geothermal energy currently accounts for only about 2.5% of renewable electricity generation in the US. These restrictions have also traditionally hampered interest and investment in this sector.

To overcome these limitations, scientists have been working since the 1970s to create artificial versions of geothermal systems that could theoretically be located almost anywhere in the world. Essentially, these new technologies aim to overcome the need to locate geothermal facilities near hydrothermal resources by drilling deeper and extracting heat from dry, less permeable rock. Some companies are even pursuing the development of super-hot rock energy, a high-temperature form of geothermal energy. These companies plan to explore miles where rocks reach extreme temperatures. This would enable geothermal power plants to harvest heat with a much higher energy density, making these theoretical power plants even more efficient. Thanks to DOE’s $74 million 2022 initiative to support next-generation geothermal systems while reducing their costs, many companies are actively pursuing projects in this field.

There are also potential ways in which geothermal energy technologies can provide additional services. Pillsbury is currently helping customers find ways to extract lithium and rare earth elements, useful for storage and renewable energy production, from the brine left over from certain types of geothermal processing.

If all goes as investors and supporters expect, EGS could potentially help deliver safe and abundant green energy. We will look at the necessary details about this emerging resource in the future.

  • How it’s working. A naturally occurring geothermal system (hydrothermal energy) needs heat, fluid, and permeability to power the energy grid. All three ingredients are found together only in regions where there are active volcanoes, hot springs, and geysers, but hot underground rocks occur everywhere, often several miles or more below the surface. Engineers aim to create artificial geothermal systems by drilling deeper into the Earth than traditional geothermal systems and delivering fluids to capture heat from the dry, less permeable rock.
  • Feasibility. The Department of Energy says the United States has more than five terawatts of thermal resources underground, which, if harnessed, would be enough to meet the world’s electricity needs. The advantage of EGS is that, unlike wind and solar energy, it is completely weatherproof and does not require sunlight. Energy can be available 24 hours a day and requires minimal space.

Drilling deep enough to obtain the high temperatures needed is a more demanding and costly process than tried-and-true resources like natural gas – at least in the early stages of development. The further downspouts go, the more heat is available; at higher temperatures EGS becomes more viable and cost-effective, especially in very hot rock scenarios where heat is extracted at a much higher density. But such deep vertical and lateral connecting pipes are new territory.

Advances in horizontal drilling and magnetic sensing that have pushed the oil and gas industry forward can now be adapted to geothermal techniques. A particular challenge is to create tools that can withstand the extreme temperatures found deep in the Earth’s crust. At the DOE-funded Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE) in Utah, operators handled melting equipment.

  • Legal challenges. Developers also must contend with federal and state environmental regulations, permitting and other potential legal hurdles. In the United States, a complex legal framework regarding underground and water rights has traditionally influenced the development of the geothermal industry. In terms of subsurface lode rights, key laws such as the Mining Act of 1872 and the Lode Lease Act of 1920 both facilitated and limited the development of geothermal energy. By allowing mineral rights to be separated from surface land ownership, these laws opened up opportunities for geothermal developers to lease or acquire rights to exploit heat resources located underground. However, these regulations may also require developers to comply with complex federal and state regulations when dealing with agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. This, in turn, can create bureaucratic hurdles, raise costs and ultimately hinder the progress of geothermal energy projects. For example, geothermal projects on federal lands or requiring a permit from a federal agency may require extensive review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

When it comes to groundwater rights in the U.S., both the Prior Appropriation Doctrine in the West and the Riparian Rights Doctrine in the East combine to have differential impacts on geothermal energy development. In regions where geothermal resources are abundant, the allocation and use of water for geothermal energy generation must be consistent with state water rights doctrines, which may enable or limit the feasibility of such projects. Thus, state regulation and oversight by state agencies are critical in determining how geothermal energy can be developed sustainably and equitably in the complex legal landscape of water rights.

  • Projects. In February, the Department of Energy announced it would provide up to $60 million for three pilot projects from Chevron New Energies, Fervo Energy and Mazama Energy. Using funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, the agency wants to demonstrate EGS’s potential to power the equivalent of 65 million homes across the United States. There is still an opportunity on the horizon to fund EGS programs in the eastern United States in a second round of funding.

In November 2023, Google announced that it is now pumping geothermal energy into the Nevada power grid and then into its data centers in the region. The technology company has partnered with Fervo on a smaller-scale next-generation project and is exploring opportunities to expand these capabilities. Fervo has also begun work on a new facility in Utah that is expected to begin delivering power by 2026 and become the world’s largest geothermal power plant. Additionally, in June 2023, Chevron New Energies Japan and Mitsui Oil Exploration Co. finalized plans to pilot test advanced geothermal systems in the Niseko region of Hokkaido, Japan, to explore the feasibility of heating on a commercial scale.

Eavor has several deals in the works, including a $96 million grant from the EU’s Innovation Fund for a project outside Munich, Germany (where the company says it will generate its first wave of power by summer 2024); a contract with the US Air Force to supply geothermal energy to the Joint Base San Antonio facility in Texas; a Getech partnership to identify advanced geothermal sites in Latin America; and more.

In addition to DOE, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is also exploring approaches and market opportunities for advanced geothermal energy. On a smaller scale, companies like EcoSmart Solutions are building communities of homes heated and cooled entirely by geothermal infrastructure.

As Pillsbury detailed, the Biden administration wants to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and transition completely to a zero-emission grid by 2035. The EU is targeting at least a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 figures) and intends to devote 30% of its overall budget to climate action in 2021-2027. The pursuit of these goals means that the government’s public interest has begun to move beyond low-carbon energy sources such as solar and wind power to include next-generation ideas. Advanced geothermal energy is still young in the face of an evolving regulatory landscape – and some potential engineering challenges – but with funding to launch it, it could prove to be a key piece of the zero-carbon puzzle. Pillsbury visualizes the success of many applications of geothermal energy as an integral part of the energy transition.

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