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The power of philanthropy: How nonprofits are uniquely positioned to catalyze transformative clean energy technologies

December 20, 2023 Work Area: Superhot Rock Energy

Superhot rock geothermal energy is an emerging energy source with extraordinary potential. If it can reach commercial scale, superhot rock geothermal energy could meet global long-term demands for zero-carbon, always-on power. Unlocking the potential of this inexhaustible energy source could expand our options, increasing impact in hard-to-decarbonize sectors, and potentially carve a path forward to replace fossil fuels. 

To reach commercial scale, we must innovate superhot rock energy to reduce costs and create equipment and tools that unlock its true potential.  

Climate philanthropy has a crucial role to play in the development of this emerging technology.  

Here are three hurdles keeping superhot rock from realizing its potential, along with the key ways philanthropy can help overcome them. 

Lack of funding 

Superhot rock requires access to risk-tolerant funding for first-of-kind pilot demonstrations. Most technologies follow a commercialization curve (Figure 1), and we expect superhot rock energy to be no exception. In such a curve, growth starts slowly before reaching an inflection point, after which the rate of adoption speeds up. In the case of superhot rock energy, existing assets in the oil and gas sector – such as subsurface expertise, human resources, and globally deployed heavy equipment – are perfectly calibrated to foster and expedite this emerging energy resource. However, the existing energy industry is unlikely to engage with this new form of energy until it has reached the inflection point through sustained field demonstrations. From there on, the sky is the limit.  

Figure 1. Commercialization Curve for Superhot Rock Energy 

Our current capital markets, such as venture capital and private equity, require successful demonstrations before investing. Because superhot rock demonstrations and testing must occur in-situ, research and development is expensive. One first-of-a-kind superhot rock well is estimated to cost many millions. Compare this to a solar cell, for example, where an investment of a few thousand dollars could provide in-situ demonstration. To further drive up the cost, we must contend with a surprisingly low understanding of the subsurface, especially at superhot conditions, making it difficult to accurately replicate it at the bench-scale or create computational, desktop models. 

The current private capital markets are not well positioned to take on a project at these costs while also accepting technology risks associated with first-of-kind applications. However, governments can, and regularly do, fill that need. Governments have a greater scope of responsibility than private investors, and they often operate on longer time horizons. They understand the need to provide economic stability for transitioning labor markets, as well as the exponential value of the energy-intense industry that would be catalyzed by innovations like superhot rock. Furthermore, they place a high value on energy security and uninterrupted energy supply for continued economic growth. This is not unique to superhot rock; no renewable energy and energy storage technology on the market today has commercialized with private funding alone. They all have secured technological maturity in part through public funding mechanisms. 

Superhot rock energy is woefully underfunded despite its unrivaled market potential and unparalleled impact toward our decarbonization goals. Terawatts of clean firm power are possible, but a pittance of the currently available public funding goes toward geothermal. As such, NGOs and private philanthropy play unique roles in accelerating the research and development of superhot rock energy. The work of the Superhot Rock team at CATF focuses primarily on the confluence of technologists and policymakers. We measure success through increased awareness and familiarity with those empowered to fund the R&D effort. A few thousand dollars’ worth of time from our policy experts can lead to orders of magnitude more funding for superhot rock energy – like the $5-25 million which DOE will spend on the U.S.’s first superhot rock energy demonstration, in part due to CATF’s advocacy. Contributions to NGOs create a multiplier effect for government funds. This leverage is possible due to 25+ years of hard-won trust and credibility between CATF and global policymakers. When we call, they listen. That’s the type of “honest broker” responsibility that comes with strong, trusted networks and a dogged commitment to fighting climate change.  

Lack of cross-sector collaboration 

Currently, there is little to no vertical integration in the superhot rock industry. Companies and laboratories are tackling issues in silos, and they’re doing it one at a time. As a result, data and learnings aren’t shared and mistakes are repeated. The lack of data sharing is exacerbated by the current funding landscape, in which companies are predominantly funded by venture capital firms which largely view intellectual property and trade secrets as a path to monetization and scale. This funding structure stifles information sharing and results in an incomplete view of the overall technology landscape. Entrepreneurs leveraging their deep expertise find themselves without the “connective tissue” needed to have a complete perspective on the global ecosystem.  

NGOs can help mitigate this risk by maintaining deep technical and industrial expertise which enables  meaningful and nuanced conversations between industry and academia, to help identify and bridge gaps. CATF has focused heavily on creating a trusted space in which companies know their information is safe while also aggregating and presenting this information via non-attributable analysis. There are very few other organizations that have the technical aptitude, access to industry resources, and aligned incentives to perform this ongoing analysis and provide this perspective. 

Lack of patience 

Meeting the magnitude of projected energy demand for the rest of this century will require investment in-kind, and fast. The Princeton ZERO Lab estimates that our global demand for power will double in the next two and a half decades. While there are many factors that drive this prediction, such as new industrial activity and the increasing standards of living expected in emerging economies, there are still many factors that have not been incorporated into most forecasting models. The integration of artificial intelligence and increasing water crises due to climate change are notable for their ability to dramatically accelerate projections of global energy demand. There is no end in sight for our insatiable appetite for energy. This trend is further complicated by the growing demand for low-carbon energy solutions. Figure 2 depicts the improbability that our current array of solutions can keep up with mounting demand. In order to set a realistic pathway to a low carbon future, we need to invest in truly transformative technologies, such as those that enable superhot rock energy, rather than wait for incremental improvements on existing technologies.  

Figure 2. Projecting global energy demand (Source: Founders Pledge

We also need to stop planning by the decade. We must shift our attention away from 2050 and think in terms of generations. While incremental improvements are important, we can’t allow them to be our sole focus. We must identify transformative solutions that can satisfy the energy demands of the future. 

Yet long-term planning isn’t commonplace. Governments tend to focus on the next election, financial institutions on the next recession, industry on the next product launch or funding round. On the other hand, NGOs, supported by private philanthropy, can look further out and start planning now for the future we want in 2100 and beyond. 

You cannot plan for what you cannot imagine. It is the responsibility of science-minded, non-dogmatic NGOs to scan the white space for solutions that are truly transformative and then raise awareness – and it is the responsibility of philanthropy to empower them 

By leveraging the power of NGO advocacy and connection-building, philanthropy can enable the development of the energy technologies we need to decarbonize our world and ensure the safety, security, and prosperity of its people for generations to come. 

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