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Experimental Geothermal Lab Taps Bedrock Heat For Green Power

A new solution to stop-gapping renewable variability is bubbling under the ground in the Southwest United States. An experimental geothermal lab in Beaver County, Utah thinks that it has the solution to keeping energy pumping to the grid when the sun isn't shining and the breeze isn't blowing on U.S. solar and wind farms. 

The lab, funded since 2018 with $220 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, sits atop bedrock that reaches a blistering 465 degrees Fahrenheit. With this limitless supply of heat deep under the ground, the lab is commissioned to test geothermal energy solutions through a trial and error experimental approach. 

Unlike typical geothermal energy sites, this one doesn't have access to hot water close to the Earth's surface, but this is a scientific advantage. Most places on Earth don't have surface level thermal springs, but if the Earth's heat can be tapped by drilling down to bedrock heated by the Earth's core, then geothermal energy could be produced practically anywhere on earth. With this aim in mind, the lab is trying to find out if deep-drilling to the hot rock under the ground, and then pumping water down to that level to heat up and produce steam to turn turbines, could be the next big clean energy solution.

Ironically, geothermal energy could not have reached this level of advanced experimentation without the technologies developed through fossil fuel extraction. The deep-drilling capabilities brought to us by hydraulic fracturing to drill for shale oil and natural gas - fracking - will be absolutely key to making this kind of geothermal energy deployable in any conceivable commercial context. 

But even if geothermal energy can be harnessed anywhere on Earth with zero carbon emissions to show for it, it's still not a climate change solution if it's prohibitively expensive to deploy on a commercial scale. And right now, it is. "For now, federal analysis shows this type of geothermal costs around $181 per megawatt hour, while utility-scale solar costs just $25," NPR recently reported. But private-sector geothermal experts anticipate that those costs will drop by about two-thirds over the next decade. 

While geothermal energy will likely never be quite as cheap as solar power, however, this doesn't mean that it's useless. In fact, it could be absolutely key to helping our grids decarbonize by providing supplemental energy to fill in the gaps left by solar and wind power. As a carbon-free baseload power, geothermal has a lot to offer which could make the higher price tag well worth it. Just a small amount of geothermal in the energy mix could go a long way toward bolstering energy security and keeping the grid stabilized. 

The benefits of this approach are manifold - not only would reduce pressure on our strained power grids and ensure that we can access energy when we need it, it would also provide an alternative solution to energy storage, another tricky clean energy challenge. Currently, the sector relies on very short-term storage provided by lithium-ion batteries. Geothermal could provide a more reliable, long-term solution while also avoiding the need to interact with increasingly messy global lithium supply chains.

The Department of Energy clearly thinks that the technology is a promising investment. Apart from funding cutting-edge research like that underway in Beaver Country, Utah, the United States has made major investments in commercial geothermal production as well. At present, the United States is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world - although this says a lot more about how little geothermal energy is produced globally, considering that geothermal represents just .4 percent of total U.S. electricity generation, and just 2 percent of renewable energy production. 

All told, geothermal energy makes up less than 1% of the world's primary energy supply. But that could soon change as the innovations at experimental in Utah and elsewhere are increasingly taken up by the private sector. Soon, geothermal sites won't be limited to the geologically anomalous places where hot water naturally leaks through to the Earth's surface via hot springs or geysers. 

Even if geothermal isn't primed for takeover, any amount of additional carbon-free energy is a benefit in the race against climate change. In fact, the solution to curbing global carbon emissions doesn't lie in a single silver-bullet solution, but in a diversified market of many solutions. Redundancy is the key to resilience, and it seems that geothermal is ready to offer us one more inroad toward stable and secure decarbonization exactly when it is most needed

By Haley Zaremba for 

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More