Report: Geothermal Energy Poised for Global Growth

January 24, 2023

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A new multi-disciplinary report that includes several Texas Engineers lays out the case for geothermal energy as the next big source of clean energy in Texas, with the ability to scale globally over the next few decades.

The study evaluates the size and potential scale of geothermal — the naturally occurring heat energy in the Earth’s subsurface. It also provides a scientific basis for informed decision-making as entities begin to consider the increased development of geothermal in Texas.

"If you care about dispatchability and reliability of energy, geothermal is an important option to consider that we have under-considered in Texas historically," said Michael Webber, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering. 

The report, titled “The Future of Geothermal in Texas: The Coming Century of Growth & Prosperity in the Lone Star State,” is the result of a multi-year, multi-disciplinary, cross-collaborative effort, researchers at five Texas universities, the University Lands Office and the International Energy Agency. Other Texas Engineers on the project include Silviu Livescu, associate professor in the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering; Joshua Rhodes, Isabella Gee and Yael Glazer from the Webber Energy Group and Thomas Deetjen, a research associate from the Center for Electromechanics.

The fifteen-chapter study includes analyses of the location and quality of Texas geothermal resources, evaluations of technology developments, the role of the oil and gas industry in achieving growth and scale, as well as environmental, regulatory, economic, and legal issues pertinent to the growth of the geothermal industry, both in Texas and globally. The report is funded and supported by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, The Educational Foundation of America, and Project InnerSpace.

Geothermal energy is ubiquitous within the Earth's subsurface. However, current geothermal energy production is limited to places where, by chance, the right conditions – heat, permeability and the presence of substantial amounts of water – naturally occur near the surface. But geothermal resources are everywhere beneath the surface, and research shows that new technologies and techniques can be leveraged to harvest this energy source anywhere in the world.

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As the report details, a flourish of geothermal startups have launched in Texas in recent years. Buoyed by oil and gas investments and primarily led by lifelong oil and gas industry veterans, these companies are moving quickly to demonstrate entirely new scalable geothermal concepts. Several of these demonstrations are planned or are ongoing in Texas, and are supported by oil and gas majors via investments.

The increasing engagement of oil and gas entities in geothermal is both reflected in and explained by outcomes of the study. Authors report that oil and gas technology and knowledge transfer into geothermal is projected to deliver 20 to 43 percent in cost savings to geothermal, using existing technologies in use in the oil and gas industry today, and that nearly 70% of oil and gas entities engaged with the study reported that there are no geothermal related technical challenges that the oil and gas industry cannot solve.

Researchers in the study calculated multiple growth scenarios for geothermal development, both globally and in Texas, placed in the context of the scale of the oil and gas industry. They concluded that drilling 1.4 million wells globally between 2030 and 2050 could meet 77 percent of the world’s projected electricity demand, while enabling Texas to decarbonize 100 percent of its grid.

“The outcomes of this study are big — but so is the oil and gas industry — and the role of the industry is what has been the missing link in prior assessments about geothermal and its potential to scale,” noted Jamie Beard, Principal Investigator and Editor of the study and executive director of the Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization at UT Austin. “To achieve the outcomes reported, we would need an Apollo-style mobilization of effort globally, but that is what climate change requires of us. We’ve done Apollo before — let’s do it again.”