TEXAS VIEW: Geothermal could be the next ‘Texas miracle’

THE POINT: Oil windfalls are freeing energy giants to dip their toes in the geothermal pool.

Houston knows how to dig holes. Perhaps when historians look back at this great city, when it has either returned to wetland prairie and piney woods or has advanced to its rightful place among the great cities of the world, it won’t be oil and gas per se that define us, but our general knack for poking, cracking, extracting and moving all manner of molecules into and out of the earth.

At least, that’s the idea behind the excitement over geothermal energy at CERAWeek, the so-called Super Bowl of energy conferences currently underway in downtown Houston. The low-carbon form of energy has “arrived” as one geothermal consulting company president posted on social media. Eleven geothermal companies are featured in the convention’s energy innovation program and last Tuesday the Department of Energy revealed a roadmap to ramp up domestic geothermal energy production to 90 gigawatts by 2050, a twenty-fold increase.

The economic promise is that geothermal will bring high-paying jobs for the Houston geologists, engineers and others at risk during a transition away from oil and gas to forms of energy that produce less greenhouse gas emissions. The reality, of course, is complicated.

The big geothermal plants already under operation require hot rock, fluids and underground cracks to naturally exist in order to create steam that turns electricity-producing turbines. There are only so many places with that combination — think California and Nevada. Yet that limitation appears to be on the cusp of being overcome. In recent years, startups have tested new technologies that borrow from the fracking revolution. By injecting fluids into manmade reservoirs, far more sites could be tapped to store or produce clean energy.

Fervo, a Houston-based company, offers proof of concept that advanced geothermal projects can be a significant source of carbon-free energy. Its geothermal pilot in Nevada is already supplying 3.5 megawatts of power — enough energy to power more than 3,000 homes. Fervo were part of a group of companies that received a $60 million grant from the Department of Energy, and the company’s geothermal success even caught the eye of billionaire oil and gas entrepreneur John Arnold, who kicked part of another $244 million raised.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm talked up the geothermal push during her CERAWeek keynote address last Monday as she did when she met with the editorial board last year, when she told us, “No matter where you are in the country, you go deep enough, there’s geothermal.” The expertise in getting that done, she noted, is “astonishing here.” Count us as fans of the federal government seeding free market innovations, especially ones that hit the trifecta of producing energy that’s cheap, reliable and clean — and doesn’t require wind or sunshine.

We’ve talked with skeptics in the industry. The transferable skills and jobs from oil and gas to geothermal may not be as seamlessas wide-eyed politicians and consultants seem to think, and the new tech is too expensive to deploy widely. What America needs, they say, is for the government to get out of the way, but instead the Biden administration has announced onerous rules on methane leaks and put a moratorium on new permits for liquefied natural gas exports. Is it a war on oil? We’ve argued that the White House has struck an appropriate balance. Despite the loud protestations by industry lobbying groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, their members seem to be doing just fine. The latest data shows the U.S. produced more crude oil than any nation ever has. Exxon, Shell and Chevron announced bumper profits last month.

During a panel discussion at CERAWeek last Tuesday, Chevron CEO Mike Wirth said the company is pursuing geothermal pilot projects in California and Japan, experimenting with conventional oil and gas drilling methods in less-favorable rock formations to extract underground heat for energy use.

As we noted in the days after Biden’s inauguration, when Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive to state agencies to thwart the president’s climate reforms, now’s not the time for obstructive overreaction. Texas is already a leader in alternative energy and our biggest resource is the folks who continuously reinvent the energy industry.

Texas 2036, a nonpartisan think tank, studied four different pathways for the state’s energy future: the status quo, more emphasis on oil and gas, accelerated renewables and an “all-of-the-above” mix. They concluded that we could be on the brink of another “Texas miracle” — another sustained period of outpacing the rest of the country on jobs and prosperity — if we pursue “economic growth and environmental stewardship.”

Go inside the Exxon offices in Spring and the first thing you’ll see is a wall etched with the names of the company’s patent holders that stretches up half a dozen floors. There’s plenty of room for new names there and at companies across the city aiming to lead with new technologies. Let’s get digging.

Houston Chronicle