Fervo Energy breaks ground on next-generation geothermal plant

The startup’s planned 400-megawatt facility in Beaver County, Utah will use enhanced geothermal” technology to harness hard-to-reach heat sources.
By Maria Gallucci

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An industrial site in the desert flanked by two wind turbines
A drilling rig starts work on Fervo Energy's geothermal power plant in Beaver County, Utah. (Fervo)

In Beaver County, Utah, a 38-megawatt power plant surrounded by bubbling mud pools and hissing steam vents has generated electricity for nearly 40 years using underground hot-water reservoirs. Most of America’s existing geothermal plants operate in similar ways: by tapping into heat sources that lie relatively close to the surface.

Three miles away, however, construction is underway on a new kind of geothermal plant — one that doesn’t require the presence of hot springs or geysers to deliver carbon-free energy to the grid. Instead, the project developed by Fervo Energy is using powerful drills to reach over a mile down and access a more abundant form of subterranean heat.

On Monday, the Houston-based startup held a groundbreaking ceremony for its enhanced geothermal” project in western Utah, which is expected to create 400 megawatts of 24/7 electricity when it reaches full-scale production in 2028. Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R) and officials from the U.S. Interior Department attended the event, where they called for accelerating production of the largely underutilized renewable resource.

Fervo began drilling in Beaver County in July and is now working on the third of what will become 100 geothermal wells drilled on public lands for the Utah power plant. If completed as planned, the Cape Station project could become the world’s largest geothermal facility to use next-generation technologies.

It represents quite a big step for geothermal, and it’s going to be really important for energy development going forward,” Tim Latimer, Fervo’s CEO and co-founder, told Canary Media. 

Three people in protective coveralls and hard hats stand in front of an industrial site in the desert
Fervo CEO Tim Latimer, center, talks with Interior Department official Laura Daniel Davis, left, and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox at the Cape Station site on September 25, 2023. (Fervo)

Fervo — which has raised $180 million from investors since 2017 — is among dozens of companies in the U.S. and globally that are striving to make it easier and cheaper to create geothermal energy virtually anywhere in the world. Vast amounts of heat sit far below our feet, promising to provide a nearly inexhaustible supply of hot water and steam for generating electricity and industrial heating, or for storing energy. The problem, however, is that most of the earth’s heat is too deep or technically complicated to reach cost-effectively using conventional methods.

That’s largely why the United States has just 3.7 gigawatts’ worth of geothermal power plants, which together supplied just 0.4 percent of total electricity generation last year.

Enhanced geothermal systems generally aim to create artificial reservoirs below ground instead of relying on naturally available resources. Technicians drill into impermeable rocks located many thousands of feet below the ground to create fractures, which they pump full of water and working fluids at high pressures. The super-hot rocks then heat those fluids to produce the steam that drives electric turbines.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the University of Utah have led much of the nation’s recent research into enhanced geothermal through the Utah Forge project — a $220 million initiative with an underground field laboratory in Beaver County. Latimer said Fervo decided to build Cape Station next door to the Utah Forge site so the company could collaborate with researchers who have already extensively explored the area’s geology.

From a technology standpoint, what we’re doing is quite similar,” he said. Both entities are drilling horizontal wells and using fiber-optic sensing tools — techniques gleaned from the oil and gas industry — to better understand how and where to harness heat from hot, dry rock formations. The main difference is that Fervo is attempting to commercialize these approaches and sell geothermal power to the grid.

Although it can produce carbon-free power, enhanced geothermal still carries certain environmental risks. Earlier projects using different types of drilling technologies were shut down after triggering earthquakes and rattling surrounding cities. But experts say it’s possible to minimize induced seismicity by siting plants appropriately and by following safety protocols, such as those developed by the DOE.

Developers face other challenges to scaling the technology, including convincing wary investors to back first-of-a-kind projects, navigating lengthy permitting processes and connecting to the backed-up U.S. electricity grid. If they can overcome such hurdles, the payoff could be significant for America’s energy mix. Enhanced geothermal projects could potentially provide 90 gigawatts of electricity by 2050, which would make it a key source of clean, around-the-clock power that can fill in gaps when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

There are only a few enhanced-geothermal commercial power plants operating worldwide today, and they all have power-generating capacity in the single digits of megawatts. Fervo itself expects to begin delivering modest amounts of power soon from a separate pilot site in northern Nevada.

At its Project Red site, the six-year-old startup has drilled two wells that reach some 7,700 feet deep, then connect with horizontal conduits stretching 3,250 feet long. The team pumps cold water down into the well, which returns hot brine to the surface. In July, Fervo said a 30-day test run showed the system is capable of generating 3.5 megawatts of electricity — marking what it claims is a breakthrough that confirms the technology’s commercial viability.

The startup has an agreement with Google to provide 5 megawatts of 24/7 power from the Nevada site to help power the tech giant’s data center operations near Las Vegas. As of now, Fervo plans to begin delivering power to Nevada’s grid later this year, about a year behind its initial promised start date of 2022. For its Utah project, Fervo has so far signed power-purchase agreements with two California electricity providers to deliver a total of 53 megawatts from the proposed 400-megawatt facility.

As planned, Fervo’s Cape Station would generate 80 times more clean electricity than the Nevada project — a significant leap for any developer, particularly one that’s deploying new technology. Latimer said the challenge for Fervo isn’t to design a geothermal system that’s capable of generating greater amounts of power, but rather to replicate its Nevada model by drilling lots of individual wells.

That base unit [in Nevada] is essentially how we’re going to develop more projects in the future,” he said. It makes scaling up something we can do very quickly as a company.”

Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.