Newsletter: Win for geothermal while California braces for heat

We’ve got three key stories for you today.
By Julian Spector

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We’ve got three key stories for you today:

  • A promising renewable breakthrough. 
  • A mildly concerning outlook for California’s summertime energy needs. 
  • And a definitely concerning analysis of the mess left behind when coal companies go bankrupt.

Also, thanks to all who joined for our Reddit AMA yesterday!

Next-gen geothermal wins deals

Geothermal can feel like the forgotten sibling of the renewables family. It hasn’t had the technical breakthroughs and policy support that wind and solar enjoyed in the last decade.

But the sector is heating up, as Eric Wesoff profiled recently. And this week we got a new data point for that trend: Google cut a deal with advanced geothermal startup Fervo Energy to harness this resource for its Nevada data centers.

The project itself is quite small — just 5 megawatts. But the turnaround is quick: It will be completed next year. And it will produce around the clock, unlike wind or solar.

That’s a far faster jump from demonstration to commercial delivery than the other clean energy technologies we cover have managed. That’s because Fervo takes well-understood geothermal technology and spruces it up with the hottest drilling advances from the shale revolution in order to drill more precisely and effectively.

It’s certainly too early to know if this approach can compete in the long run. But with a recent $28 million fund raise and this deal with a leading purchaser of renewables, Fervo’s got some momentum.

And if geothermal does take off again, it offers a more credible job transition trajectory for the oil and gas workers whose drilling expertise made the shale revolution a reality.

California ready for another heat wave? Maybe

California ran out of electricity amid a historic heat wave last summer. And while some conservatives blamed Texas’ (far more disastrous) winter blackouts on a Green New Deal that hadn’t happened yet, California actually is trying to model a shift away from fossil fuels.

So the stakes are high for the Golden State to get it right this summer. The state authorities in charge of this have:

  • Extended the lives of gas plants that were supposed to close.
  • Fast-tracked new battery construction.
  • Hammered out other fixes to reduce consumption in extreme situations.

Where does that leave us? Jeff St. John has the story:

The grid operator is cautiously optimistic that there will be enough electricity to meet demand this summer,” CAISO CEO Elliot Mainzer said in a statement last week. Still, natural threats exacerbated by climate change could overwhelm these preparations, he warned.

The state definitely has more tools at its disposal compared to last year. And a heat wave power crunch won’t have the element of surprise this time.

Still, cautiously optimistic” leaves something to be desired, especially when the state had so many years to plan for gas and nuclear plant shutdowns it knew were coming and still ended up short on supply.

When coal goes away, who pays?

Our other story for today leaves less room for cautious optimism.

Jason Deign walks us through the loopholes and shortcomings of the systems that are supposed to ensure coal mining companies remediate their mines when they cease operations.

The law is supposed to ensure that mines have funds set aside for cleanup. But some states let coal companies decide for themselves how much to set aside, with predictable results. In other states, regulators don’t require enough money, leaving reclamation efforts underfunded.

Now, with coal mining in free fall, bankrupt companies are leaving behind mines with unfunded reclamation obligations that new buyers aren’t interested in taking over. And as financiers pull out of coal, it’s getting harder to find insurers willing to backstop a new reclamation commitment.

The upshot is that mining regions may be left with billions of dollars of reclamation expenses that were supposed to be paid for. If policy doesn’t say otherwise, that’ll be a double whammy on top of those regions’ lost economic activity.

Today’s newsletter is sponsored by Aurora Solar’s Empower Virtual Summit.

(Lead photo: Tommy Kwak)

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.