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How a Former Oil Guy Is Using Fracking Tech to Boost Geothermal Energy

10 minute read

Of all the technological progress of the past few decades, there is a good argument to be made that a series of fossil fuel industry innovations that helped spark the U.S. shale oil boom have had the single largest effect on the course of global geopolitics, and the world’s biosphere. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking shifted the U.S. from being a net fuel importer to exporter—a realignment of the world’s strategic chessboard currently being demonstrated in the fleets of American oil and natural gas tankers helping circumvent Russia’s energy blockade of Europe. At the same time, all that new, cheap fuel helped prolong the U.S.’s carbon addiction for years, with incipient renewables unable to compete against natural gas.

But that drilling technology may yet have a climate upside. Last month, Houston-based startup Fervo announced the successful test of a first-of-its kind commercial-scale power plant, which uses the shale oil drilling innovations to produce zero-emission geothermal energy. While horizontal drilling allows oil producers to access new seams of fossil fuels, in Fervo’s case, the company is drilling sideways into hot, porous rocks heated by tectonic activity. The company then pumps water through those rocks in order to generate steam and produce electricity. Right now, its project in northern Nevada is capable of producing about 3.5 megawatts of energy, or enough electricity to power about 2,600 homes. Once the plant gets hooked up to the grid later this year, that electricity will be used to power Google data centers and other Alphabet operations.

Unlike solar and wind energy, which only generate energy when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, geothermal plants can provide a constant stream of power, which is crucial to balancing the grid. Currently, geothermal energy accounts for about 0.4% of U.S. electricity. But, like in the U.S. fracking boom, Fervo’s technology could make it feasible to develop geothermal power plants in many more areas where it wouldn’t have made financial sense before, a change that could help raise geothermal energy as a serious player in decarbonizing the U.S. grid.

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Tim Latimer started his career in the oil and gas industry, before co-founding Fervo in 2017. He spoke with TIME about finding a way to use oil industry technology for the planet, and his vision for the future of geothermal energy. 

The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TIME: Can you tell us about how Fervo’s technology works? Why is it important?

Tim Latimer: Geothermal power generation has been around for over 100 years. The first geothermal power plant was built in Italy around the turn of the last century. All geothermal [power] kind of works the same way: you drill to high temperature geology, and then you produce hot water or steam out of wells that you drill into, and then capture that at the surface to create electricity. There's been plants built all over the world. It's a huge part of the electricity mix in places like Iceland, New Zealand, and Kenya. But traditionally, the struggle has been that you [have to] tap really hot, shallow, productive, natural basins to be cost-effective. But those sites got tapped [decades] ago, and we had to drill deeper to less hot places and less productive wells, and technology really didn't keep up. So the reason geothermal hadn't expanded was that once you cherry pick these geologic hotspots and try to move on to other places, the tech didn't exist to make it cost effective.

Traditionally, you would drill simple vertical wells, and you would flow [water] between injection wells and production wells. What's novel about our site is we drilled down about 8,000 ft., and then we turned and drilled horizontally for 4,000 ft. And then we flowed [water] from one horizontal well to the other across several hundred feet in that high temperature rock 8,000 ft. beneath our feet. That solves some of these economic challenges and allows us to go to deeper places and still make the economics work. 

What was the biggest challenge of making that oil and gas technology work for geothermal power?

Our geology requirements are quite a bit different. In the U.S., there's been well over 100,000 horizontal oil and gas wells drilled, but generally, those are in shallower places where the rock is softer, and it's not as hot. So it has taken a lot of work to be able to adapt the equipment. Our wells are much higher temperature—the project that we did here was nearly 400℉. We're also drilling through granite, and so that's much harder rock. 

What sort of new technology did you need to drill through harder rock and higher heat?

Some of it is better tools, like drill bits with harder surfaces, and motors and electronics that are built to deal with higher temperatures. And some of it is just better techniques. One of the things that we drove forward was a way of pumping fluid down while we're drilling that cools your drilling system more efficiently than in an oil and gas operation.

Where are these hot rocks that you need? How much more geothermal energy could your technology open up?

Our current projects are in states like Utah and Nevada that have good natural geology for geothermal, where we can still drill relatively shallow wells and get to high temperature [rock]. But we're not limited to those geologies. We're just starting there first because it's the low-hanging fruit. Principally, there's virtually an unlimited amount of geothermal energy. The world is really big, and the world is really hot. We've got billions of years of energy under our feet. It's all a question about how much you can access economically. We think with existing technology, drilling down to about 4,000 meters [over 13,100 ft.] is probably cost effective.

Read more: How Amazon Became the Largest Buyer of Renewable Energy in the World

As part of the [U.S.] Energy Secretary's enhanced geothermal Earthshot that she announced last year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory did a study looking in detail at the Western United States, and determining how much high temperature rock can you find at 4,000 meters [over 13,100 ft.] or shallower, and found over 200 gigawatts of [potential power] that was just in that shallow depth. That would represent as much as 20% of U.S. electricity supply, if we can develop that amount. But what we think is, as we expand this technology, we won't have to be just limited to the western United States. We can get so cost effective that we can come to the Eastern United States where we would have to drill deeper, but still make it cost effective. And so there's really no practical limit to how much geothermal [energy] there can be. It's just a question of how quickly we can get more efficient at drilling and repeat the results that we did in our pilot, and just continue to bring costs down every time we build a new power plant.

Was there a particular day where you got out of bed, and said, “I'm done with oil and gas, and I’m going to use this drilling technology for renewables instead?” 

I've always been really passionate about the environment. I love the outdoors. And so even when I started my career in oil and gas, it was something I was thinking about a lot. I'm from Houston. The oil and gas industry has been a big part of my life and my community. But the more I got passionate about climate change, the more I really wanted to start looking at new solutions.

There's two things that happened for me that were important. I realized that a lot of my friends, a lot of my family, and a huge part of our city all had our employment prospects tied up in the oil and gas industry. And I started realizing this energy transition is real, and if we're going to take serious action on climate, we need to make sure that there's something that Houston is doing. And not just Houston, but other major oil and gas places around the world. People in places where oil and gas is the primary economic driver need to find a way to transition. And so I wanted to figure out how somebody from the oil and gas industry could apply their skills to climate change. When I discovered geothermal, I felt really excited. This is a field that needs drilling engineers, but to produce a carbon-free energy source.

And then another thing for me was I lived in Houston during this series of floods we got in the 2010s. Year after year, we got these one-in-1,000 year events. Everybody knows about Hurricane Harvey in 2017. But for me, in 2015, there was a flood and they canceled my work. And I walked outside my apartment, and the road outside had 20 ft. of water on it. Everything was underwater. It was this moment where [climate change] went from being this thing that I was intellectually curious and about to being like, “This is not normal. This is a pretty urgent crisis.”

I ended up quitting my job just a couple of months after that to go to graduate school, and ended up pursuing this new geothermal path. I wrote in my application essay to Stanford Business School that my goal was to learn the entrepreneurial skills to launch a geothermal company that can take technology from the oil and gas industry to disrupt the geothermal sector. So it was a pretty calculated move.

I imagine that a lot of people you're working with also come from an oil and gas background, and maybe decided to leave because that industry is not really going to be viable anymore for us as a species. Does that play into recruiting folks?

Totally. 60% of the employees at Fervo come from a background in the oil and gas industry. Growing up here [in Houston], oil and gas is just a massive employer. I really get frustrated when people demonize the people that work in oil and gas. They are some of the best people. It's an incredibly diverse group with people from all over, and a lot of them are also passionate about climate change. We’re able to tap into that growing part of that workforce that is thinking deeply about climate change. If we want to deploy geothermal energy as quickly as we need to to actually have an impact on global carbon emissions, we need to recruit tens of thousands of people to come work with us. And so recruiting from the oil and gas industry is a major part of our strategy.

What does the future look like for Fervo? 

We're going into full deployment mode. Technologies like this only make a difference if we deploy them at large-scale in a way that can reduce carbon emissions and increase the reliability of the grid. Our next project that we're breaking ground on is going to be nearly 100 times bigger than our pilot. We're targeting a 400 megawatt project [in Utah] that we're going to be constructing over the next four years. And then beyond that, it's our ambition to unlock that full multi-hundred gigawatt resource that the National Renewable Energy Lab has identified. The goal here is to be 20% of U.S. electricity supply by 2050, and then to repeat that around the world.

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com