US startup claims 'commercial scale' geothermal energy production after 30-day demo

The energy generation site will be connected to the grid and power Google's data centers in Nevada.
Ameya Paleja
Enhanced geothermal system at a site in Nevada
Enhanced geothermal system at a site in Nevada

Fervo Energy 

Houston-based US startup Fervo Energy has claimed that it has achieved "commercial scale" geothermal energy production from its Project Red demonstration site in northern Nevada. The site recently completed a 30-day well test, a standard for geothermal energy installations, a company press release said.

Geothermal energy is one of the sources of renewable power being explored as the world moves away from fossil fuels. Unlike wind and solar power plants, geothermal energy can be sourced around the clock and on demand to cater to increased energy needs.

For a geothermal energy system to work out, it needs a combination of heat, fluid, and rock permeability at a given site. In most places, the rock is hot enough to generate power. However, it is not porous enough to allow fluids to run through them. This is where enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) come in.

What are enhanced geothermal systems?

Startups like Fervo Energy have devised newer ways to make geothermal energy accessible in most regions. The wells are drilled deep underground, and fluid is injected into them to create fractures in the rock to increase their permeability. This then creates the conditions needed to generate electricity.

Before this technology can be deployed at a large scale, it must demonstrate its utility and how risks arising from the actions can be mitigated. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has established protocols for these milestones, and Fervo undertook Project Red as a full-scale commercial pilot.

US startup claims 'commercial scale' geothermal energy production after 30-day demo
Startups wants to tap into any rock to access geothermal energy and not just select ones

Commercial-scale geothermal energy

For the demo, Fervo used a horizontal well pair that extended to 3,250 feet (990 m) and reached a temperature of 375 Fahrenheit (191o Celsius). During the test period, Fervo achieved a flow rate of 63 liters per second, sufficient to generate 3.5 MW of electricity. One megawatt of energy can power approximately 750 homes at a time.

Data collected during this pilot will now be used to improve the design for Fervo's next well pair and double the energy output generated. "By applying drilling technology from the oil and gas industry, we have proven that we can produce 24/7 carbon-free energy resources in new geographies across the world", said Tim Latimer, Fervo Energy CEO and Co-Founder, in the press release.

Fervo now plans to connect the Nevada site to the electrical grid and provide energy to Google's data centers, with whom it signed an agreement for carbon-free energy in 2021, the first corporate agreement in the geothermal sector.

Fervo also has another site in southwest Utah, currently under construction. With design improvements, the site is expected to generate 400 MW of power by 2028, sufficient to power 300,000 homes or a quarter of Utah residents.

For all its benefits, geothermal energy is plagued by high power generation costs. The US government is looking to reduce the costs by as much as 90 percent over the next decade, to bring it closer to $45 per megawatt hour. Fervo isn't anywhere close to this mark at the moment but expects costs to decline rapidly in the next year, Latimer told Bloomberg.

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