By John Roach
Carbon-free electrons generated with steam extracted from a next-generation geothermal system are flowing onto the electric power grid in northern Nevada and helping to power the internet.
Fervo Energy, a Houston-based startup, developed the project with funding and support from Google. The tech company has committed to operate its data centers and offices with carbon-free energy around the clock by 2030.
The project, called Project Red, is an enhanced geothermal system. The technology leverages horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques pioneered to unleash oil and natural gas from shale formations.
In this case, Fervo drilled twin wells about 7,700 feet down and then horizontal for roughly 3,250 feet. The company then fractured the rock along the lateral. This created a pathway for water pumped down one well to slosh through the hot rock, heat up to more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and return to the surface via the other well.
On the surface, the system transfers heat to a liquid with a low boiling point, which creates steam to spin turbines at an adjacent geothermal power plant.
The water and other fluids recirculate to extract more heat, creating a closed-loop system.
“Our geothermal project is now operational and carbon-free electricity has started flowing onto the local grid that serves our data centers in Nevada,” Michael Terrell, senior director of energy and climate at Google, wrote in a blog post announcing the milestone.
Geothermal gets a boost
For now, Project Red produces between about 2 and 3 megawatts, according to a white paper that Fervo published on a pre-print server in July about the well test. That’s enough electric power for a few thousand U.S. homes
Studies by the U.S. Department of Energy show that enhanced geothermal systems technologies could unlock around 90 gigawatts of clean, firm power by 2050.
Today, conventional geothermal systems generate a total of 3.7 gigawatts of electricity in the U.S. They are concentrated in western states where water readily circulates through hot rocks and carries heat to the surface.
Enhanced geothermal systems technology promises to create geothermal power plants anywhere hot rock exists. This has potential to boost the supply of clean energy that’s available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
To spur the development of this next-generation technology, the U.S. Department of Energy announced its Enhanced Geothermal Shot initiative in 2022 to reduce the cost of the technology by 90%, to $45 per megawatt-hour, by 2035.
This November, the agency announced $44 million in funding spread across 13 research projects at its Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy field laboratory in Milford, Utah.
Fervo, which has received funding from the energy department, is currently drilling wells for a 400-megawatt enhanced geothermal system project adjacent to the FORGE laboratory in Utah. The project is set to begin delivering around the clock power in 2026 and reach full production in 2028.
“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.
Toward a carbon-free internet
Google is among several big technology companies that have committed to running data centers with carbon free electricity around the clock by a point in the not-too-distant future. Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 and Amazon aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, for example.
To meet these commitments, the big tech companies are big supporters of wind and solar farms. But the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. That’s why the companies are also on the hunt for sources of firm, always on carbon-free energy.
Today, much of the industry’s firm, carbon-free electrons come from hydroelectric dams and nuclear power plants. Geothermal is among the alternatives the industry is exploring. Others include nuclear fusion, hydrogen fuel cells and wasted natural gas.
All of the above are likely to be needed. The emergence of generative AI is turbocharging data center energy consumption.
Google’s Terrell is optimistic the industry will succeed.
“Together we can accelerate advanced clean energy technologies and build the resilient, secure, cost-effective and fully decarbonized electricity grids that are needed to mitigate climate change and create a prosperous, carbon-free future for all,” he wrote.
Top image: Steam extracted from deep underground in northern Nevada using enhanced geothermal systems technology is helping to power this geothermal power plant. Photo courtesy of Google.