Tech Insights

Next-Generation Geothermal Tech Leading Renewable Energy Transition

April 19, 2024 by John Nieman

Geothermal energy plays a major role in the renewable energy transition with next-generation technologies for exploration and development.

Solar and wind infrastructure is growing, but uncontrollable variables can always compromise their contributions to the grid. Geothermal energy is particularly attractive because it is weather-independent. 

Conventional geothermal energy has been severely hampered by location limitations relying on naturally occurring reservoirs, which are uncommon. Next-generation geothermal energy escapes this limitation by utilizing ubiquitous hot rock deep under the earth’s surface. This technology can bypass the need for a natural or constructed reservoir, which dramatically frees up site potential. 

 

Geothermal plant in Iceland.

 

Geothermal plant in Iceland. Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently reported on next-generation thermal energy, its benefits, and the challenges of scaling the technology for widespread use. The DOE emphasizes the potential job creation, cost savings, and environmental benefits after implementing widespread next-generation geothermal technology

 

Limitations of Conventional Geothermal Technology 

While a potent renewable energy source, conventional geothermal technology faces several limitations restricting its widespread adoption. Traditionally, geothermal energy exploitation has been confined to areas with natural geological features, such as hot springs and geysers found in tectonically active regions. This limits geothermal development to specific geographical locations. Additionally, the high upfront costs associated with the exploration and drilling of deep wells and the uncertainty of finding viable geothermal resources pose significant financial risks.

Environmental concerns also accompany conventional geothermal technology. The drilling process can lead to land subsidence and the release of greenhouse gasses trapped underground, albeit in much lower quantities than fossil fuels. Moreover, the extraction of geothermal fluids can lead to the depletion of water resources and the contamination of groundwater with minerals and other substances.

 

How Next-Gen Geothermal Tech Escapes Site Limitations

Next-generation geothermal tech has explosive potential and does not depend on specific site limitations. 

Next-generation geothermal technology, also known as enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), aims to overcome conventional limitations by expanding the potential for geothermal energy beyond natural reservoirs.

 

Long-term estimated power projections for next-gen geothermal power.

Long-term estimated power projections for next-gen geothermal power. Image used courtesy of the Department of Energy

 

EGS involves creating or enhancing artificial geothermal reservoirs through hydraulic fracturing, where water is injected into the ground to create rock fractures, allowing for heat extraction from dry rock formations. This technology significantly broadens the geographical scope for geothermal energy, making it feasible in areas without natural geothermal activity. Because of the natural limitations of conventional geothermal systems, only 25% of available energy has been captured, whereas EGS tech will free up sites across the country. 

Furthermore, advances in drilling technologies have reduced the costs and increased the efficiency of accessing deep geothermal resources. Using directional drilling, for instance, allows multiple wells to be drilled from a single location, minimizing the environmental footprint and improving the economic viability of geothermal projects.

 

Obstacles in Commercializing Next-Gen Geothermal

For the last 50 years, engineers have conducted substantial research and development on EGS tech, but it is now entering the commercialization phase. This transition to widespread scaled adoption will bring advantages, including parallels to oil and gas infrastructure making labor transfer more feasible and drilling equipment readily available.

Since EGS tech has not been employed in a wide variety of conditions, stakeholders may be hesitant to take risks. They may wait to see performance data before fully committing support to EGS projects. 

Right now, geothermal project timelines hover around 7-10 years. Complex permit procedures related to drilling and certain public lands continue to hinder the widespread growth of next-generation geothermal power. 

Nevertheless, the shift is underway, and the limitations of conventional geothermal power will be left in the past as we move to a renewable future supported by next-gen geothermal tech, which is flexible, weather-independent, and capable of making critical contributions to grid stabilization.