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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Fervo Energy’s new project will harness the earth’s heat to capture CO2

The geothermal energy startup says it will design and engineer a system combining advanced drilling technology with a direct air capture” system to collect carbon.
By Maria Gallucci

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Two very large industrial devices outdoors surrounded by plumes of steam
Geothermal energy powers a direct air capture facility in Iceland. (Climeworks)

Fervo Energy has spent the last six years developing new ways to drill deep below the earth’s surface, with the aim of harnessing geothermal resources that are too costly or difficult to reach using traditional methods. Now the Houston-based startup is turning its attention to the sky.

On Thursday, Fervo Energy said it plans to design and engineer a direct air capture (DAC) system that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, using geothermal energy to power its operations. The project is supported by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

Fervo is well positioned to drive innovation in carbon removal and demonstrate the natural alignment between geothermal and DAC,” Tim Latimer, CEO of Fervo, said in a statement.

Since launching in 2017, Fervo has mainly concentrated on lowering the cost of developing geothermal power by making it easier to tap underground heat to make steam and produce electricity. The startup uses the same horizontal drilling techniques and fiber-optic sensing tools as the oil and gas industry in an effort to reach deeper wells and hotter sources.

Last August, Fervo raised $138 million to build and run a fleet of geothermal power plants, bringing total investment in the company to $177 million. Its first commercial plant, a 5-megawatt facility, is now under construction in Nevada. Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management authorized Fervo to begin exploring sites for potential commercial-scale geothermal energy production in Beaver County, Utah.

The new, unspecified amount of funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will help Fervo to both use geothermal resources to provide 24/7 carbon-free” power and heat to DAC systems, as well as to explore the potential of geothermal reservoirs for storing carbon dioxide once it’s captured from the sky. The startup aims to have a pilot facility online in three to five years, the Washington Post reported.

In order to scale carbon removal, costs need to come down dramatically,” Caitlyn Fox, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said in Thursday’s press release. By combining geothermal with DAC, Fervo’s approach creates exciting opportunities to develop rigorous carbon removal at a lower cost, while providing a reliable, abundant, carbon-free source of power and heat.”

Climate scientists say that — in addition to replacing fossil fuels and making deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions — the world must also remove and sequester atmospheric CO2 in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Direct air capture belongs to the broadly defined category of carbon dioxide removal,” which includes a variety of early-stage or still-unproven technologies that have yet to reach the scales needed to achieve deep reductions in atmospheric CO2.

The two main methods for DAC are liquid systems, which pass air through chemical solutions, and solid systems, which pass air through filter materials that chemically bind with the CO2. Climeworks’ Orca plant in Iceland, which is also powered by geothermal energy, uses the latter approach.

Liquid systems require extremely high temperatures of over 800 degrees Celsius (1,472 degrees Fahrenheit) to release captured CO2 for its eventual storage or reuse. Solid systems, however, require lower temperatures, of up to around 120°C (248°F), making it possible to use waste heat from geothermal energy production, along with the electricity, to release the captured carbon, according to a comprehensive new study, The Future of Geothermal in Texas.

Many of the best locations for geothermal power production in Texas, including East Texas, may also have subsurface CO2 storage sites, the report states.

Still, as Shannon Osaka pointed out in the Washington Post, a potential criticism of Fervo’s new project is that it focuses on drawing CO2 out of the air instead of preventing it from getting there in the first place.” Unlike wind and solar, geothermal can provide around-the-clock baseload electricity. Companies like Fervo are developing advanced technologies that could help harness the earth’s heat in virtually any location — alleviating the need to remove carbon to begin with.

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Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.