After years of investing in wind and solar power, Google is adding advanced geothermal energy to its portfolio.
The search engine giant revealed Tuesday that it signed a contract with startup Fervo Energy to deliver 5 megawatts around the clock from a new geothermal project in Nevada next year.
That's far smaller than a typical corporate renewables deal. But it's a breakthrough for geothermal, which has largely sat on the sidelines of the corporate clean energy buying spree. Unlike wind or solar, geothermal works all day and night, making it a natural fit for Google's push for 24/7 clean power.
"This project will prove out multiple concepts that, if successful, pave the way toward scaling up and reducing the cost of the technology, enabling deployment in more locations in support of our 24/7 carbon-free energy goals," a Google spokesperson told Canary Media.
Fervo, which raised a $28 million Series B round in April, aims to make geothermal more competitive by applying advanced drilling technologies from the oil and gas industry. Horizontal drilling and underground fiber-optic sensors already make oil and gas drilling more efficient, but they can reduce costs and increase productivity for geothermal as well.
Fervo does not yet have commercial projects in operation today, but it has demonstrated its technology in the field, CEO Tim Latimer told Canary Media. The quick timeline for delivering the Google contract indicates the company's high degree of confidence in the technology.
"We’re not having to start from scratch here because it’s an industry that’s been around for so long," Latimer said of geothermal. "It can be built, in a lot of cases, more quickly than some of the other solutions people are interested in."
Small modular nuclear reactors require years of regulatory vetting before they can be built. Long-duration energy storage needs to be tested, at small scales and usually for years, before customers will trust it. But advanced geothermal doesn't involve any radically different technology, so its path to market could be swifter.
"Geothermal doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel," Latimer noted.
Fervo now has 15 full-time staff members, but it works closely with additional researchers at several universities and technology companies on grant-funded research projects.
The startup will be "managing the development" of the project for Google, Latimer noted, but he declined to elaborate on whether other partners are involved in financing or constructing it.
The partnership with Google extends beyond power delivery and into data crunching as well. Fervo will work with Google's cloud analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities to study the data collected while drilling. One objective is to understand how to optimize geothermal plants as flexible resources, Latimer said, so they can ramp up or down in response to other renewable production.
This isn't Google's first brush with geothermal energy. Dandelion Energy, which installs geothermal wells for home heating and cooling, graduated out of X, the "moonshot factory" of Google's parent company Alphabet. Dandelion is installing systems in New York and Connecticut.
Earlier this month, Google struck a 10-year deal for clean power at its Virginia data centers. Power producer AES will source renewables and energy storage plants to guarantee Google gets 90 percent clean energy for every hour during the contract term.
Geothermal currently supplies just 0.4 percent of U.S. electricity. It's been a quiet sector compared to wind and solar, which benefited from policy support and rapid technological progress in recent years. But a Department of Energy study suggests this 24/7 renewable resource could reach as much as 120 gigawatts installed by 2050, delivering 16 percent of the country's electricity, if technological improvements take hold and gain traction.
Lead photo credit: Matt Palmer
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