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Mastering geothermal energy with CATF’s glossary: A path to increased accuracy and collaboration 

November 7, 2023 Work Area: Superhot Rock Energy

Superhot rock energy (SHR) is an emerging form of next-generation geothermal energy with near-limitless potential to reshape the global energy system. SHR involves several innovative technologies for drilling and energy production from deep, very hot rocks in the Earth’s crust. 

Since superhot rock energy is an emerging geothermal energy source, stakeholders often use different definitions for the same terms. Professionals at different companies, academics and researchers at different institutions, and people in different countries, speaking different languages, all define terms differently. 

Inconsistency and inaccuracy in language increases uncertainty and ambiguity within the geothermal community, making it harder for stakeholders to effectively communicate and innovate. It also creates confusion for those outside the geothermal community – such as policymakers, journalists, and financiers – when they try to understand SHR technologies and their market potential. To help address this problem, CATF created a Superhot Rock Energy Glossary with standardized definitions and illustrations for many of the most important geothermal terms applicable in superhot environments. 

Beyond simply defining commonly-used words, the glossary also illustrates some of the key themes of superhot rock energy and its current state. 

Superhot rock is an emerging energy source 

CATF’s Superhot Rock Energy Glossary includes many synonyms, reflecting the differing vocabularies of various geothermal and SHR organizations. The superhot rock technological approach is relatively new and has not yet coalesced on key language. We need clearer communication to help this sector advance and mature. This communication should be consistent across all stakeholders (companies, research institutions, and advocacy groups) and across global regions (since there is active SHR work occurring in numerous countries around the world). Clearer communication will also speed up SHR development by enabling better data sharing, research collaboration, and joint advocacy for key policy priorities. 

Superhot rock draws on multiple disciplines 

SHR advancement draws on a number of technical disciplines as well as work in project management, financing, risk management, engineering, and power production. Therefore, the terms defined in CATF’s Superhot Rock Energy Glossary span multiple disciplines, including geology (e.g., permeability and rift system), chemistry (e.g., enthalpy and supercritical), physics (e.g., thermodynamics and enthalpy), power production (e.g., baseload and levelized cost of electricity), and finance (e.g., demonstration scale and Nth-of-a-kind). Superhot rock energy is a multidisciplinary industry, and further development of superhot rock technologies will require collaboration among all these disciplines – some of which have not had much opportunity to work together in the past. Investment from nonprofits and governments is needed to build connections between these disciplines and help coordinate research efforts. CATF’s Earth Energy Innovation policy brief gives more details about how the U.S. government could enable and direct research into SHR, advancing the potential of this emerging energy source. 

Expertise typically found in the oil and gas sector can help superhot rock succeed 

Many of the glossary terms (e.g., play, reinjection, and wellbore) originate from the oil and gas industry. Superhot rock energy development advances techniques and tools developed in the oil and gas industry, such as deep drilling and an understanding of rock mechanics. SHR can therefore provide a career shift or “off-ramp” for the oil and gas workforce, supply chain, and technologies to bring their expertise into renewable energy and the zero-carbon transition. Continuing this trend will provide the SHR industry with valuable expertise, while also creating high-quality career alternatives for professionals currently working in fossil fuel extraction. 

There are many different superhot rock technologies 

Superhot rock energy builds off prior advancements in geothermal energy. CATF’s Superhot Rock Energy Glossary defines a wide range of terms representing many different technologies and techniques which can be adapted from other geothermal methods to access SHR energy – including engineered geothermal systems, open-loop and closed-loop circuits, hybrid systems, and more. This variety of options will make it easier to develop SHR in locations and geologies around the world. However, significant research and testing will be needed to develop the full range of possible SHR technologies. 

Commercializing superhot rock will take effort 

CATF’s Superhot Rock Energy Glossary ends with a section on geothermal project development, which defines terms ranging from proof of concept (the earliest phase of testing) to Nth-of-a-kind (when a technology is fully designed and optimized). There are numerous steps on the path toward Nth-of-a-kind projects, and many of the technologies needed for SHR’s commercialization are progressing down that path. As with any new technology, it will require dedicated investments of time, money, and research to shepherd emerging SHR technologies through the stages of development to reach their full potential. Consistency in communicating the value and intricacies of SHR technology will be key to these efforts. The Superhot Rock Energy Glossary can be a valuable resource to achieve that consistency, and we invite interested stakeholders to review it. 

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