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Case Study

The Potential for Superhot Rock Energy in the Middle East

What if there were a ubiquitous, carbon-free, secure, and cost-competitive energy source that could replace all existing fossil fuel power generation and meet most of the world’s future global energy needs? What if that energy source could provide baseload power with no intermittency issues? What if it used far less land and water resources than other energy sources while also allowing the world to meet our emissions reduction goals? What if it were available almost everywhere, reducing the need to import energy?

This energy source does exist. It is called superhot rock energy.

And with the right funding and policy support, it can be developed and scaled up quickly enough to revolutionize the global energy system.

The power of superhot rock geothermal energy

Superhot rock energy (SHR) works by harnessing massive, inexhaustible stores of heat deep underground by pumping water several kilometers into the subsurface, where it is naturally heated and returned to the surface as steam. That steam can be used to produce carbon-free electricity or kept as pure heat, which can generate clean hydrogen or other high-energy-intensity products needed to decarbonize transportation and shipping industries.

OUR VISION: Rapidly scale superhot rock energy from demonstration to initial commercialization in this decade and develop deep drilling methods that could could enable “geothermal anywhere” in the 2030s.

The energy demand in the Middle East

The Middle East’s energy demand is projected to rise over the coming decades due to a growing population, higher per-capita energy consumption, and the electrification of additional sectors of the economy. Middle Eastern countries will also need to adopt more energy-intensive technologies to adapt to rising temperatures and extended droughts, while shifting their energy sectors away from oil and gas. If all countries in the region fulfill their announced climate commitments, as much as 1,302 GW of carbon-free energy capacity could be needed by 2050.¹

The Middle East’s SHR energy capacity potential is more than three times the carbon-free capacity needed, at 5,140 gigawatts² of energy (GWe³). This could generate more than 45,000 TWh of electricity. To provide perspective, the city of Dubai consumed 53.1 TWh in 2022,⁴ this hypothetical SHR resource capacity could satisfy the electricity demands of approximately 850 additional cities equivalent to Dubai. If fully deployed and utilized, the SHR resource potential could fully meet the region’s energy demand, with over thousands of terawatts of generation potential remaining to be exported in the form of high-electricity consuming products in hard-to-electrify sectors as well as zero-carbon fuels. According to the first-of-a kind heat mapping analysis overseen by CATF and the University of Twente, Netherlands, investing in SHR technologies today could stimulate a gross revenue stream in excess of US $2.5 trillion annually for the Middle East region assuming a similar energy mix and corresponding wholesale cost of electricity in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2022.


Figure 1: Total Final Energy Consumption under the Announced Pledges Scenario modeled in the IEA World Energy Outlook 2022. The Announced Pledges Scenario includes country-level ambitions and targets proposed to deliver emissions reductions with the aim of achieving net-zero by 2050.⁵


Figure 2: Modeled electric capacity for the Middle East under the IEA’s Announced Pledges Scenario compared with the total SHR resource potential in the Midde East.

SHR’s enormous potential in the Middle East

Today’s geothermal systems are confined to regions where concentrated heat (and water) is located near the earth’s surface, significantly restricting its ability to become a global solution. By contrast, superhot rock energy systems reach deeper into the earth’s subsurface, where we find superhot conditions nearly everywhere in the world. CATF created a global map that highlights the estimated depth to reach required temperatures (+400°C). This global database will be released in early 2024. Presented here is a Case Study to demonstrate the enormous climate and market potential of SHR in the Middle East. According to this first-of-kind heat model, superhot rock exists across ~40% of the Middle East’s land area, amounting to more than 2.5 million square kilometers, at depths between 3 km and 12.5 km. With a concerted focus on deep drilling research and technology innovation the Middle East should be able to access superhot rock nearly anywhere.


Figure 3: The total capacity potential of SHR if fully developed across countries with available heat in the Middle East

Country focus: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is well endowed with superhot rock resources and leads the region in total heat accessible with current or next-generation drilling technologies (estimated to be 12.5km or less). According to this first-of-kind analysis, the available heat in Saudi Arabia has the potential to provide 1,791 GWe of energy capacity, which could generate over 20,000 TWh of electricity and stimulate a gross revenue stream of roughly of US $1 Trillion annually for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – when applying an industry standard 10% risk factor to this assessment – due to the lack of field experience with this energy resource, this still represents a hundred-billion dollar gross market value.

If fully realized, the potential of SHR energy could produce enough electricity to meet the Kingdom’s total yearly electricity demand with over 15,000 TWh to spare for other end uses such as meeting growing energy demand, seawater desalination, and catalyzing new export-based economies of zero-carbon fuel production. This excess electricity production aggregates to nearly 45 times the Kingdom’s 2022 electricity consumption.


Figure 4: The potential energy production (EJ) of SHR versus the Total Final Energy Consumption (EJ) modeled in the IPCC’s AR6 C1 scenario. The figure assumes 5% SHR deployment in 2030, 10% 2035, 20% in 2040, 50% in 2045, and 80% in 2050.


Environmental benefits

Saudi Arabia’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) under the Paris Agreement aim to reduce emissions by 278 million tons of CO2eq annually by 2030. The Kingdom’s low-carbon energy strategy is to completely decarbonize by 2060. In 2021, Saudi Arabia emitted 672 million metric tons of CO2. Replacing fossil-based energy sources with just 16% of total SHR potential would reduce carbon emissions by 613 million metric tons,⁶ enabling Saudi Arabia to exceed its NDC goal and execute its low-carbon energy strategy. With adequate and immediate investment in the research and development of SHR enabling technologies, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia could reasonably bring these assets on the grid well before the 2060 goal.

What will this cost?

According to preliminary modeling (Herter, 2023), electricity produced from mature SHR energy resources will be competitive with conventional power sources priced potentially as low as $25-40 per MWh on a global average compared with the current price of electricity in Saudi Arabia, $58.62 per MWh.⁷ Initial costs will be higher for first-of-a-kind SHR projects but will progressively decline in the same way that unconventional shale gas, solar, and wind have declined after commercialization.⁸


Figure 5: Illustrative graph shows how electricity produced from superhot rock is expected to be competitive for Nth-of-a-kind plants (NOAK) based on estimated levelized cost of electricity after full commercialization. Lucid Catalyst and Hot Rock Energy Research Organization (HERO) have preliminarily estimated that superhot rock geothermal could have an LCOE in the range of $20-$35/MWh. This would be competitive with other dispatchable and intermittent energy resources.


Desalination potential

Desalination provides about 70% of Saudi Arabia’s drinking water. The Kingdom produces over 2 billion cubic meters of desalinated seawater every year, which consumes about 6.64 TWh of electricity generated by 25% of the country’s total domestic oil and gas production. The share of oil and gas used to desalinate seawater is expected to increase to 50% by 2030.⁹ Fully realizing SHR’s potential in Saudi Arabia could produce enough electricity to meet the Kingdom’s total yearly electricity demand, including the expected increase in demand for desalination, with over 16,000 TWh remaining for new desalination or other uses.

Leveraging subsurface expertise

The Saudi Arabian Oil Group (ARAMCO) is the second largest company in the world by revenue¹⁰ and is the majority state-owned petroleum and natural gas company of Saudi Arabia. With a workforce of over 70k employees,¹¹ ARAMCO is well poised to champion this zero-carbon solution both on domestic and foreign soil as they maintain deep expertise in many of the technical areas needed to deploy SHR energy quickly and a fleet of international assets, such as drilling rigs and contractual partners, that could do so at a global scale. For example, an intensive drilling and resource development program by well-funded consortia that include oil and gas industry players could provide the knowledge and innovation needed to develop and rapidly commercialize superhot rock energy.

You can request a copy of the methodology for this analysis here.

Citations

  1. IEA (2022), World Energy Outlook 2022, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-outlook-2022, License: CC BY 4.0 (report); CC BY NC SA 4.0 (Annex A)
  2. Results discussed are un-risked or unconstrained estimates.
  3. We use GWe here because a 95% capacity factor is included in the calculation of resource potential.
  4. Saleh 2023
  5. IEA
  6. Statistical Review of World Energy
  7. BloombergNEF Climatescope
  8. The cost scenarios were developed using CATF’s SHR technoeconomic model (Herter, 2023). It is important to understand that water risk or restriction has not been considered. Furthermore, the LCOE reported, assumes that several engineering innovations in deep drilling, reservoir creation, well construction and downhole tools has been satisfied to allow the commercial development of a superhot rock geothermal project. This does not reflect the likely cost of project development, today, in 2023. It is emphasized that these cost estimates do not represent the likely costs for the First-of-a-kind (FOAK) superhot rock plant (neither the first few plants). Rather, it estimates costs for an “Nth-of-a-kind” (NOAK) plant. Furthermore, the report is considering operation conductions and knowledge present in the USA. The numbers have not been adjusted for regional cost biases.
  9. Caldera et al 2017
  10. Fortune
  11. Puri-Mirza 2023

Future state of superhot rock:
Key steps to success

Private and public investment

Investment from both private and public sources is needed to help SHR reach its full potential. SHR development will require the resources of governments, the geothermal industry, government laboratories, academic institutions, the oil and gas industry, and technology companies.

Government investment

Early government investments can jumpstart the process of commercialization by providing drilling campaign incentives, funding early-stage R&D to “de-risk” SHR in the public and private sector, funding pilot projects, and enhancing cooperation among international projects.

Regulatory
regime

New policies are needed to ensure that SHR development is both safe and efficient, including protecting water supplies and mitigating seismic risk. Institutional frameworks are also required to provide the resources needed for development and scalability at a global level

Curious to learn more?

Take a deeper dive into superhot rock

Learn more about how the superhot rock process works and explore the potential benefits this source of energy has to offer.