Geothermal energy could be off the ramp for Texas oil

AUSTIN, Texas — Four years of drilling for energy deep underground would be enough to build Texas’ zero-carbon state power grid, a new study by an alliance of state universities has found.

The state’s top universities – including the University of Texas at Austin, Rice University and Texas A&M University – worked with the International Energy Agency to produce the landmark report.

It portrays the Texas geothermal industry as a potential partner for the state’s enormous oil and gas sector — or as the ultimate way out.

At best, the industry represents “an accelerating trend” that could replicate or surpass the fracking boom, said Jamie Beard of the Texas Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at the University of Texas.

“Rather than aiming for a moonshot in 2050, for which we need to make a scientific breakthrough, geothermal power is now viable,” Beard said. “We can now build power plants.”

The authors emphasized that the geothermal, oil and gas industries all rely on the same fundamental skill – interpreting Texas’ unique geology to find valuable underground fluids.

In this case, however, the liquid in question has long been considered a waste product: superheated water released when drillers prospected for oil and gas.

About “44 terawatts of energy is continuously flowing out of the Earth into space,” said Ken Wisan, an economic geologist at the University of Texas.

“Rock is a great heat battery, and the top 10 miles of the core contains an estimated 1,000 years of our energy needs in the form of stored energy,” Wisan added.

Most of the state’s population lives above potentially usable geothermal heat – as long as there is the will to drill deep enough.

Superheated trapped steam at nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit — the sweet spot for modern geothermal energy — is accessible about three to five miles below the state capital Austin and 2 1/2 to 3 miles below its best-known city, Houston, the report said.

The report highlights geothermal energy as a possible way out of two energy paradoxes.

The first concerns the state’s ailing power grid. The isolated system has been repeatedly driven near blackouts by extreme heat and cold and the relentless, demanding growth of the state’s population.

According to the Energy Information Agency, the state’s significant renewable potential is contributing to some of that growth: Texas leads the state in wind power and has near-leading solar potential.

But the Republican-dominated legislature has been concerned about how to create “baseload” electricity — the grid’s minimum demand — as well as easily “distributable” energy resources.

Several Republican leaders and the state Public Utility Commission have pushed for the construction of new coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants to provide 24-hour power.

Despite their different shapes, these “thermal” options work on the same basic trick. Whether they run on coal or uranium, most modern power plants use the fuel’s boiling water to create steam, which spins an electromagnetic turbine and produces electricity.

Geothermal energy offers another lower-cost, more climate-friendly solution: start with steam, which resides in superheated pockets miles below the earth’s surface.

Rebuilding the state to an energy system based on geothermal energy would provide “equal performance as gas, coal or nuclear power” at a lower cost, said Michael Webber, a clean energy professor at the University of Texas.

But Webber said it would do so “without the same fuel reliability issues.”

During the February 2021 Texas winter storm, Webber noted, natural gas and coal supplies froze — which would not have been a problem with geothermal power.

The industry also gives Texas the opportunity to divert its flagship industry from planet-warming products like oil and gas.

The International Energy Agency said in May 2021 that new oil and gas production would need to be halted for the world to meet global climate targets, The Hill reported.

Since that warning, global oil and gas production has continued to rise – and is on track to hit record levels in 2023. But Tuesday’s report, which the global energy watchdog helped create, suggested geothermal could be a politically palatable avenue for the industry.

The report found that if the Texas drilling industry drilled as many geothermal wells as oil and gas currently does, about 15,000 a year, the state could subsist on geothermal energy by 2027.

Webber said this would free up natural gas to replace more carbon-intensive coal in other locations, from Indiana and West Virginia to India and China.

Since Texas’ home needs were being met by cheap geothermal heat, “oil and gas would have more molecules that they could probably sell to others for more money,” Webber added.

Beard said the oil and gas industry offers a potential model for how the geothermal industry could expand rapidly.

“The very first beginnings of oil and gas, they picked up oil and gas from the surface of the ground and puddles,” she said, analogizing to the geothermal industries in geologically highly active Iceland with its frequent eruptions.

But eventually the fossil fuel industry started drilling and moving forward. “And sure enough, now we’re drilling in 5,000 feet of water offshore with multi-billion dollar, technically complex wells,” Beard said.

“And we could do that for geothermal, right?” she said. “We could choose the deep water of geothermal, and we can do it for the next few decades.”


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