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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Startup claims breakthrough in turning the earth’s heat into clean power

Fervo Energy, an enhanced geothermal company, says its pilot site in Nevada shows it’s possible to produce 24/7 carbon-free energy” in new geographies.
By Maria Gallucci

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A drilling rig stands tall on a flat landscape with blue mountains in the background
Fervo Energy's Project Red site in northern Nevada (Fervo)

Fervo Energy, a leading geothermal energy startup, says it achieved a technology breakthrough that could eventually accelerate the push to pull up carbon-free energy from deep down in the earth.

On Tuesday, Fervo said it had successfully completed a full-scale well test that confirms the commercial viability of its next-generation technology. The Houston-based startup uses horizontal drilling techniques and fiber-optic sensing tools to access geothermal resources that are otherwise too expensive or technically complex to reach using existing methods.

During a 30-day test period, Fervo showed that its Project Red site in northern Nevada is capable of generating 3.5 megawatts of electricity. While that’s only enough to power roughly 2,600 U.S. homes at once, it’s still more electricity than any of the world’s 40-some enhanced geothermal systems” have previously achieved, according to the company.

The announcement marks an important step in the six-year-old startup’s efforts to unlock a high-potential yet still largely untapped source of 24/7 carbon-free energy. Fervo is one of dozens of companies worldwide that are striving to make it easier and cheaper to access the earth’s heat anywhere in the world — not just where geysers and hot springs bubble at the surface.

This proves that the way we’re developing geothermal can produce much more productive [geothermal] wells than anything that’s been done before,” Tim Latimer, Fervo’s CEO and co-founder, told Canary Media.

Project Red is slated to connect to the grid later this summer and begin providing power for Google’s data center operations near Las Vegas. Fervo has an agreement with the tech giant to deliver 5 megawatts of around-the-clock power to help reduce Google’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor and leader of Princeton University’s Zero lab, noted that computer modeling of power systems has shown that geothermal can play a critical role in fully decarbonizing the U.S. electric grid.

Fervo’s successful commercial pilot takes next-generation geothermal technology from the realm of models into the real world and starts us on a path to unlock geothermal’s full potential,” he said in a statement.

A map of the United States indicates in shades of red, orange and yellow where the richest geothermal resources exist
(U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

The United States sits atop enough heat resources to meet the entire world’s electricity needs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But conventional geothermal technologies mainly involve tapping relatively easy-to-reach hydrothermal” resources found in a handful of places, including Northern California and Nevada’s Great Basin region.

That’s why the country has only 3.7 gigawatts’ worth of geothermal power plants, which together supplied about 0.4 percent of total U.S. electricity generation last year.

Companies and U.S. agencies are increasingly turning to enhanced” geothermal approaches, which, broadly speaking, aim to create their own geothermal reservoirs instead of relying on naturally available resources. Technicians drill into hard, impermeable rocks found thousands of feet below the earth’s surface to create fractures, which they pump full of water and working fluids. The super-hot rocks then heat those fluids, eventually producing the steam that drives electric turbines.

A recent Department of Energy analysis found that enhanced geothermal projects could provide potentially 90 gigawatts of power to America’s grid by 2050, enough to meet the power needs of more than 65 million U.S. homes. To do so, companies will need to develop and significantly scale up technologies that today exist mainly as pilot and demonstration projects. They’ll also need to move carefully to avoid triggering earthquakes and causing potential damage in the process of drilling and fracturing rocks.

On that point, Fervo said it implemented a protocol developed by the DOE to mitigate induced seismicity during testing at the Project Red site. The startup said it completed its tests without incident.”

Fervo, which has raised over $180 million from investors, began drilling at the Blue Mountain geothermal field in Humboldt County, Nevada in early 2022.

The startup’s team drilled two wells that reach 7,700 feet deep and then connect with horizontal conduits stretching some 3,250 feet long. During the well tests, which took place in May, the startup flowed fluid into the reservoir, where the liquid reached temperatures of up to 376 degrees Fahrenheit and achieved a flow rate of 63 liters per second.

A project’s flow rate — how much fluid is moving through the well over time — is used to model the amount of electricity generation it can potentially deliver to the grid. In Fervo’s case, that translated to 3.5 megawatts of power. Other commercial-scale projects have previously delivered flow rates in the single digits,” in terms of liters per second, according to a technical paper Fervo published. None of those other efforts incorporated horizontal wells.

When you think about the metrics to be successful for geothermal, it comes down to how much flow rate you have and how much reservoir volume is there, so that your fluid can stay down there long enough to get hot,” Latimer said. Going horizontally, instead of just a simple vertical well, completely changes the game in terms of how effective you can be on a per-mile basis.”

The Utah Forge project, a $220 million, DOE-led initiative, is deploying a similar approach to Fervo’s near the Mineral Mountains in Utah. Earlier this month, the research project achieved its own technology milestone, proving that its two deep vertical wells that link to a long horizontal circuit are indeed connected beneath the surface, the Deseret News recently reported.

As Fervo works to produce power for Google at its Nevada site, the startup also recently broke ground on a geothermal power project in southwest Utah, adjacent to the Forge site. Latimer said the goal is to bring 400 megawatts online by 2028 — more than 100 times more power than its early tests showed the technology can produce.

That’s a step-change in scale for us,” Latimer said. But because of how promising the results are for this [Nevada] pilot, we’re very confident in our ability to scale up and meet that next phase of development.”

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