Supporting the Research, Development, Demonstration, and Deployment (RDD&D) of Next-Generation Geothermal Energy
Innovations in next-generation geothermal have the potential to transform the nation’s access to clean, firm power. One such technology, superhot rock energy (SHR), derives its energy from Earth’s deep heat, which is inexhaustible and available at all times. Tapping into this resource could provide clean firm electricity at the scale necessary to decarbonize the global economy. Due to its high energy density, low land requirements, unlimited supply, and global availability, superhot rock energy has the potential to meet long-term demands for cost-competitive 24/7 renewable energy. However, despite its immense potential, superhot rock energy is almost entirely unrecognized in decarbonization policy. Other types of innovative next-generation geothermal energy, such as enhanced geothermal systems and closed loop geothermal systems (CLGS) also do not receive the support required to reach their full potential.
To understand the barriers to geothermal innovation and how to overcome them, Clean Air Task Force (CATF) embarked on a series of listening sessions. From October 2022 to January 2023, CATF conducted 24 conversations with representatives from 21 organizations actively engaged in geothermal innovation. This included industrial partners (developers, drilling companies, and service companies), national and university laboratories, and more. The focus of these listening sessions was to identify policy gaps and industry needs related to the research, development, and demonstration of next-generation geothermal energy.
Superhot Rock Listening Campaign Highlights
October 2022 – January 2023
As a result, CATF identified the primary barriers to geothermal energy innovation and superhot rock energy development in the United States and outlined three key areas of opportunity for federal policy leadership:
- Establish a framework: Establish an institutional framework that provides the resources needed to focus on transformational geothermal technologies and facilitates the scalability needed for geothermal to reach its full potential.
- Foster technology acceleration: Support research and development (R&D) in both public and private sectors.
- Facilitate a roadmap: Facilitate a series of federal agency studies that concentrate on creating a well-informed roadmap for the United States to shift toward clean, 24/7 energy derived from next-generation geothermal sources.
Why promote policies that advance superhot rock energy (SHR)?: Demonstration projects suggest that water that comes into contact with the Earth’s deep heat could provide as much as ten times more energy than steam from conventional geothermal resources. Due to its high energy density, low land requirement, inexhaustible supply, and nearly universal availability, superhot rock energy has the potential to meet long-term demands for zero-carbon, always-on power. But to achieve deployment of SHR energy in the next few years, R&D into operations under superhot temperature and pressure conditions needs to begin now. The world can’t afford to wait another decade to continue the development of this transformative energy source.
Why we must also continue to enhance wider geothermal innovation: Although SHR has a promising future, there are immediate needs for technologies that are ready to deploy today. Just 0.1% of the heat beneath our feet can account for the planet’s total energy needs for the next 2 million years – and that heat is constantly regenerating. Geothermal technologies that enhance the ability to access this unlimited supply of heat ultimately advance the ability for the United States to become energy independent with a source of clean, robust, 24/7 energy.
Below is a list of the prominent findings from the listening sessions.
9 barriers to advancing geothermal energy
Barrier 1: Inability to deploy projects
Permitting is a critical bottleneck for many of the stakeholders interviewed. Developing geothermal power facilities requires an extensive permitting process. In January 2022, Idaho National Labs modeled a hypothetical permitting scenario for a project in the western U.S. That model predicted permitting delays between 6 and 13 years for a single geothermal project. Public land management is a key consideration in understanding this deployment issue – 67% of geothermal electricity generation capacity in the U.S. sits on Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-managed land alone (BLM, 2022). Numerous stakeholders indicated that staff at field permitting agencies such as the BLM deal with inadequate resources for understanding geothermal technologies and approaches they don’t interface with often.
As a result, geothermal permits are deprioritized below permits for better-known technologies. Slow and uncertain permitting timelines cause investors to avoid investing in next-generation geothermal technologies, including SHR, and dramatically slow the process of testing and developing these technologies. To offset this risk, developers are attracted to locations that are expected to have reduced permitting obligations rather than places where the power is in demand or where the technology can be optimized.
Barrier 2: The U.S. is trailing international partners in superhot rock energy innovation
Countries like Japan, New Zealand, and Italy have been the sites of leading research projects in SHR energy. Domestic research groups routinely mentioned the need to collaborate with international partners on SHR energy and lamented the inefficiencies of working in siloes. Through Horizon 2020 initiatives like DEEPEN and DESCRAMBLE, the EU has spearheaded extensive research and development of superhot rock energy. It is imperative that research groups in the U.S. have the resources needed to collaborate with international research groups.
Barrier 3: Ineffective resources for data sharing
Multiple stakeholders CATF interviewed noted their interest in sharing reservoir characterization and drilling data. Data is a valuable resource for geothermal development, and access to subsurface data is critical for helping companies survey for heat and reduce the risk of well failure through well-informed drilling programs. Though there are existing data repositories at both the federal and state levels, these need to be organized, centralized, and more widely accessible. The existing database that comes from federally funded research, the Geothermal Data Repository, was criticized by a few interviewees as “working poorly” or “inaccessible.”
Barrier 4: A lack of attention from federal agencies
Numerous stakeholders voiced concern that offices within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are hesitant to put substantial resources toward nascent geothermal technologies, including SHR, because these technologies have higher initial costs and a long timeline to demonstrating success. It is much easier for an agency to fund a mature technology that has a greater chance of getting built even though it may have lower decarbonization potential.
Although it is important to support geothermal innovation generally, without an office tasked specifically with pursuing SHR technology development, federal-level research on SHR is at risk of stagnation. Mature geothermal technologies are often considered a stepping-stone to achieving SHR, but that is not necessarily the case. In many cases, R&D of mature geothermal technologies are not applicable to SHR because it requires the use of high-temperature, high-pressure (HTHP) equipment. To ensure the allocation of funding, research, collaboration, and the development of best practices specific to SHR, there needs to be institutional support of SHR within the Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO). The GTO should work to advocate for SHR innovation in addition to innovation of lower-temperature geothermal technologies.
Barrier 5: Siloed research and development efforts
The commercialization of superhot rock energy will not require one major scientific breakthrough, rather, it will be the product of intentional engineering iterations across multiple disciplines. These areas include:
- Drilling systems that can drill quickly through rock that is deeper, hotter, and higher-pressure than the conditions encountered in oil and gas or conventional geothermal drilling;
- More robust well materials designed to withstand the thermal cycling within this harsher environment;
- Enhanced fluid circulation through high-pressure, high-temperature dry rock;
- Tools or cooling mechanisms that can measure superhot downhole conditions;
- Surface equipment designed to withstand superheated steam;
- Advanced understanding of seismic monitoring and mitigation; and more.
Some of these technologies have been developed but not yet tested in the field. And all of these technological advancements can build on prior work developed for other energy sources, such as conventional geothermal energy and unconventional oil and gas resources. But unlike the oil and gas industry, the superhot rock industry is not vertically integrated. Rather, companies and national labs tend to work on only one or two of the areas above. This is because each of these technologies/areas of work is unique, with specific technical expertise needed to make advancements. Siloed research and development efforts make superhot rock development more difficult by creating a complex web of intellectual property. To bring SHR to commercial scale, the innovations being developed will need to work together. When no company has access to all these innovations, they cannot be tested together – much less used together in a demonstration project.
Barrier 6: Limited access to in-field testing
Startups and laboratory researchers have very few resources to access in-field testing. The SHR companies and research groups we spoke to saw field testing as a key need, with many ranking field-testing as their most critical and/or immediate need. However, lack of coordinated partnerships and shared test sites were a barrier for enabling companies and researchers to test their innovations in the field.
Both national labs and private companies play important roles in technological advancement, and a collaborative approach that leverages the strengths of both can lead to the greatest impact. There is a need for a program to provide funding for developers to test their technologies in the field at authorized field-testing centers and to iterate on these technologies at a bench scale by collaborating with a consortium of national labs.
An in-field testing site (the FORGE site in Utah) provides this service for lower-temperature enhanced geothermal systems. Our interviewees recognized the value of FORGE as a testing site, and some had planned or wanted to work with FORGE. However, some interviewees also noted that the heat at this site is not ideal for testing superhot rock technologies. Some interviewees suggested replicating the FORGE model in a higher-temperature setting.
Barrier 7: There is a mismatch between funding and need
Public funding for national labs and private funding for R&D should be targeted to technology areas that are not otherwise being addressed in either public or private settings. This is especially important for research areas that would not otherwise be pursued through commercial market mechanisms. During our listening sessions, we heard over and over from industry that crucial, achievable technology gaps in SHR energy have been largely ignored, while other technology areas have been the focus of R&D for decades. Defining targeted research areas is more impactful than non-targeted funding.
Barrier 8: Developers are concerned with retaining intellectual property rights
Intellectual property (IP) was named as a key area of concern for many of the stakeholders involved in the listening sessions. While there has been no case where the U.S. government has utilized the Bayh-Dole Act – which would allow it to exercise march-in rights to retain intellectual property generated from a federally funded project – the potential for this to occur is often a concern for developers. One stakeholder stated that industry is often unwilling to apply for federal R&D grants because they do not fully understand the IP rules or waivers available. For these stakeholders, it was clear that the need to understand IP protections trumps the desire for federal funding, ultimately stifling growth and innovation.
Extending grant application timelines and publishing a FAQ on the IP protections relevant to DOE funding as well as the waiver process could allow developers the time required to become comfortable with the implications of the terms and conditions associated with federal funding and ensure they can adequately protect intellectual property associated with engaging with a federal program during the application process.
Barrier 9: Lack of an intentional technology development roadmap
It is important that geothermal technology development and scaling of that development is intentional. A number of stakeholders saw a need for increased awareness and analysis into the community impacts, technology needs, market impacts, supply chain gaps, workforce impacts, risks, and benefits associated with innovation of SHR and next-generation geothermal.
Why is it important that public R&D supplements and private technology development?
Private and public R&D play complementary roles in technology development, and funding for both is important. National laboratories are well-suited to answer fundamental academic questions that are more broadly applicable. Because they don’t have a profit motive, they are also the best venue for generating research and development in areas where learnings should be shared openly across stakeholders. Finally, national labs can develop technologies that do not have an immediate market on which private industry can capitalize. For example, high-temperature, high-pressure sensors may not have an immediate use case, beyond space exploration, until SHR is commercially viable. While it is reasonable to anticipate that private industry will ultimately be profitable in this space, it cannot do so until the market exists.
Funding for private R&D also plays a key role in driving rapid and impactful technology change. Private industry can work quickly and agilely, make cost-effective decisions, and put money toward generating intellectual property that has financial value without future government support. This is important in generating a technology that will be competitive in a commercial market.
What role can the federal government play in geothermal technology development?
Federal policy plays an important role in advancing zero-carbon technologies. Private investment in next-generation geothermal energy has built significant and growing momentum over recent years. However, the federal government can play a unique role in the development and deployment of this technology by:
- Taking on risk: Public investment is not bound by private companies’ need to achieve short-term financial goals and thus is empowered to pursue high-risk, high-reward energy development projects. The public sector also has an obligation to its constituents to maintain access to clean, on-demand energy over an equally long time-horizon. This is not a trivial task given the mounting demand for firm electricity. While estimates of future electricity demand vary wildly, nearly all agree that it will continue to grow given the trend toward the electrification of transportation systems, new computing and storage techniques, and a blossoming interest in low-carbon hydrogen. Federal policymakers are in a unique position to step in during the early stages to propel the technology forward. Public funding can incentivize projects to advance and iterate on new technologies until private companies are willing to significantly invest and enable the technology to be competitive in energy markets.
- Catalyzing research and development: The federal government plays a key role in accelerating research and development of SHR. Funding for private research and development can support rapid technology acceleration, and funding for national labs and universities can help provide unbiased R&D support, as well as an unbiased roadmap to technology adoption. In addition, large scale public investment inherently signals to industry participants that the industry is expected to play a significant role in the future, triggering a virtuous cycle of increased investment from the private sector.
- Establishing standards and best practices: Federal agencies are uniquely positioned to provide a common source for the development of best practices. These practices are necessary to ensure technology deployment, equity, safety, and efficacy of nascent energy types like SHR.
- Fostering collaboration: Achieving commercialization of superhot rock energy will be the result of a series of technology innovations in numerous areas, including drilling, stimulation, well completion, power production, and more. Work in these spaces occurs across a diverse set of stakeholders who are at risk of working in siloes. Federal programs can help SHR develop by encouraging collaboration between stakeholders at every level, including international allies, government agencies, academic institutions, and private companies.
- Expanding the size of the prize: The United States trails other countries in its investment in geothermal energy innovation. However, fossil fuel companies based in the U.S. hold nearly all of the skilled workforce and supply chains required for producing next-generation geothermal energy. Unlike many of the leading countries, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to rapidly scale up geothermal technologies by harnessing existing supply chains and become a leader in the development of clean, 24/7 electricity.
Superhot rock energy is promising, but federal support is critical
Next-generation geothermal technologies, such as superhot rock energy, have the potential to make the United States a leader in the global energy transition. Harnessing the Earth’s unlimited source of heat energy could rapidly accelerate the decarbonization of U.S. energy sources and ensure energy security and economic prosperity in the U.S. and beyond. And while there is interest from a variety of stakeholders to advance this innovative, 24/7 energy source, support from the federal government is critical to addressing the challenges outlined above. As momentum continues to build rapidly around next-generation geothermal energy, the federal government has the unique ability to bring this technology from early maturity to commercial deployment.