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Focus on geothermal innovation heats up with DOE’s new liftoff report 

March 19, 2024 Work Area: Superhot Rock Energy

The release of the report, “Pathways to Commercial Liftoff: Next-Generation Geothermal Power”, by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) marks a pivotal moment in the recognition of geothermal innovation as a cornerstone for accelerating global decarbonization. This will be the seventh liftoff report in the series published by the DOE. These reports are important resources that are focused on commercialization pathways for promising climate technologies and are designed to be periodically updated to address evolving market, technology, and policy environments.  

DOE’s next-generation geothermal power report charts a course for the commercial scalability of next-generation geothermal technologies and emphasizes the critical role that these innovations can play in the path towards decarbonization as the demand for clean energy continues to surge worldwide. We commend DOE’s commitment to charting a pathway for next-generation geothermal energy, a resource that promises to provide reliable, continuous, and zero-carbon energy. 

Bridging the gap

This is an important recognition of the role that geothermal technologies can play to advance the U.S.’s climate goals: Earth’s deep heat is inexhaustible, available at all times, and could provide clean, firm electricity at the scale necessary to decarbonize the U.S. economy. Next-generation geothermal technologies leverage heat extraction methods like Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) and Closed-Loop Geothermal Systems (CLGS) to access this inexhaustible heat source in many more parts of the world. Pairing EGS with advancements in deep drilling may make these technologies possible nearly anywhere. Enabling EGS and CLGS to access high-temperature conditions (above the supercritical point of water) could increase their power production potential significantly and may ultimately allow them to be cost-competitive with fossil energy today. Experts refer to the use of EGS or CLGS to access these “superhot” conditions as superhot rock energy (SHR). None of these advancements in geothermal receive the public and private investment required to reach their full potential. The geothermal liftoff report outlines the necessary steps and support systems to bridge this gap, ensuring these promising technologies receive the attention and investment needed to unlock their transformative potential for the U.S. and the world. 

High-impact support areas

In the report, the DOE estimates that $225–$250 billion is needed for next-generation geothermal technologies to achieve commercial scale. Provided proper public and private investment, the report suggests that next-generation geothermal technologies could achieve a 60% reduction from 2023 costs. Geothermal producers can already expect to sell their electricity at a premium – thanks to the combined value of firm power and process heat they can generate – but the report notes additional opportunities to achieve large-scale commercialization. To achieve these cost reductions and meaningful scalability, the report identifies several high-impact opportunities for support. These opportunities include:

  • Supporting large-scale demonstrations to prove down technology risk.
  • Refining systems for community-informed project siting.
  • Facilitating high-value offtake agreements with utilities or off-grid demand resources.
  • Targeted research and development (R&D) to drive iterative improvements and cost reductions.

CATF has identified that high-impact R&D needs include deep drilling, well construction, and reservoir engineering in high-temperature environments. Given the United States’ robust oil and gas workforce and supply chain, the country is uniquely positioned to pivot its workforce toward next-generation geothermal energy. At the brink of a technological revolution, with the right investment and policy framework, the United States is poised to emerge as a global frontrunner in next-generation geothermal energy. These recommendations echo findings from CATF’s listening tour, which included a series of meetings with 21 research groups, startups, and service companies over the course of 8 months to uncover the barriers facing geothermal today. 

Future opportunities

CATF commends the DOE for taking the step to publish this liftoff report, but there is still more work to do. While the liftoff report highlights superhot rock energy as a way for EGS and closed loop systems to increase their efficiencies, there is an opportunity for the DOE to deepen its exploration superhot rock in its future work. This could be achieved in a few ways:

  1. Reporting on the work done by startups and research groups in advancing EGS and CLGS into supercritical environments.
  2. Presenting an analysis of the extent to which superhot rock energy could be a driver for future cost reductions in geothermal.
  3. Supporting NREL in including supercritical resources in its assessment of U.S. resource potential.

Such an expansion of DOE’s vision for geothermal innovation would not only recognize but also amplify the role that geothermal energy could play in the energy transition. As such, CATF recommends that DOE builds on the work in this report to directly address needs for superhot rock energy in its future reports. 

Clean Air Task Force (CATF) has pioneered a series of work products to drive continual momentum for geothermal innovation as an important tool for global decarbonization. CATF’s work to date includes: 

  • An interactive project map to allow researchers, investors, and policymakers to track early-stage superhot rock energy projects.  
  • A series of public policy opportunities for the U.S. federal government to support geothermal innovation.  
  • Coming soon: A first-of-a-kind analysis showing that tapping into just 1% of the United States’ superhot rock energy potential could generate 4.3 terawatts of clean firm power – equivalent to eight times the country’s 2022 electricity consumption or enough energy to power New York City 687 times over.  

Up next, CATF will be releasing additional information about the resource potential for superhot rock energy in global regions and will be publishing a series of gap analyses to recommend future support for research and development of superhot rock systems. Track CATF’s ongoing work here

CATF applauds Secretary Jennifer Granholm and DOE for their leadership in advancing geothermal research, development, demonstration, and deployment. We look forward to collaborating with policymakers, industry stakeholders, and the scientific community to leverage the insights from this report to drive forward the development and deployment of next-generation geothermal energy. These efforts are essential to achieve energy security and ensure the United States remains at the forefront of the global transition to a more resilient and sustainable energy future. 

DOE’s geothermal liftoff report can be found here. Learn more about the agency’s commercial liftoff reports here

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