Is It Wind, Is It Solar, Is It Electric? No, It’s Something Else.

November 3, 2020

With a news cycle dominated by headlines about the election, erupting protests, hurricanes and fires, you may miss a few things.  And that’s ok.  We’ve got this.

Geothermal energy is making a comeback.  Geothermal?  Yep, that’s a head scratcher for most. 

What is geothermal energy?
Basically, according to a recent article in Vox, the geothermal energy industry describes it as “the sun beneath our feet.”  The ARPA-E project AltaRock Energy estimates that “just 0.1% of the heat content of Earth could supply humanity’s total energy needs for 2 million years.”  Got your attention now?

So, geothermal energy is all about mining heat from deep within the earth.  And, it’s also something that is scalable, which makes it interesting to big players in the energy industry.

Everyone has heard of “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone Park, the natural geothermal geysers.

What if geothermal startups could create their own reservoirs of this kind of thermal energy?  

Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS)
Areas in the earth that are like Old Faithful are obviously limited.  There are only so many areas under the earth that have hydrothermal reserves that can be tapped.

But, there is heat stored in normal, nonporous rock underneath he earth’s surface as well.  EGS is a method to extract heat from rock like that:

EGS involves drilling down into solid rock, injecting water at high pressure and fracturing the rock.  Then the heated water is collected in another well. In a nutshell, that is how EGS can make its own reservoir of geothermal energy. 

Enter the Frack King
Mukul Sharma has been a professor University of Texas at Austin’s Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department for the past 35 years and is a National Academy of Engineering inductee.  He’s also known as the “Frack King” in the oil and gas industry because he’s the guy you call when you’ve got a complex engineering problem that needs to be solved.  He recently launched a new venture in EGS call Geothermix.

Why this matters.  Geothermal startups need expertise in drilling technology, and the oil and gas industry can supply those kinds of experts. 

Some notable startups in the geothermal space

  • Dandelion Energy. This is a Google X Innovation Lab alum focused on residential geothermal energy.  Founded by ex-Googler Kathy Hannun, they have raised around $35 million and have installed geothermal units in hundreds of homes in upstate New York.
  • Quaise. This one emerged from the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center and received seed funding of $6 million from The Engine, an MIT associated VC.  Carlos Araque is co-founder and CEO, and the core innovation is its gyrotron-powered millimiter-wave drilling system. 
  • Fervo Energy. Bill Gates invested in Fervo via his $1 billion Beakthrough Ventures Fund.  Tim Latimer, the company’s CEO, describes Fervo as using horizontal drilling and distributed fiber optic sensing to increase the lifetime and productivity of geothermal wells.

Geothermal energy is not top of mind when most people talk about alternative energy, but perhaps it should be.

Podcasts we referenced for this article
Hot Rocks: Drilling into Geothermal Energy, with Tim Latimer of Fervo Energy
The Currents Podcast with Norton Rose, interviewing Kathy Hannun of Dandelion Energy


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