Frackers Are Now Drilling for Clean Power

At its site in Utah, Fervo has lowered the cost of making electricity from underground heat by drilling horizontal wells and using modern sensor technology.
At its site in Utah, Fervo has lowered the cost of making electricity from underground heat by drilling horizontal wells and using modern sensor technology.

Summary

Oil-and-gas companies are accelerating investments in geothermal energy, betting the technologies that fueled the shale revolution can turn the budding industry into a large producer of clean power.

Oil-and-gas companies are accelerating investments in geothermal energy, betting the technologies that fueled the shale revolution can turn the budding industry into a large producer of clean power.

Chevron, BP and Devon Energy are part of a group of fossil-fuel companies investing hundreds of millions of dollars in modern geothermal startups and projects. Many of these companies are using the same technology employed by frackers, but instead of searching for oil and gas, they are looking for underground heat.

The new geothermal industry is the result of a surprising confluence of interests among the oil-and-gas, technology and green power industries. The heat that the drillers find underground can be used to generate a steady, round-the-clock supply of carbon-free electricity, which is coveted by tech companies for their power-hungry data centers.

Finding pockets of underground heat is relatively easy in places with lots of geothermal activity, including parts of the U.S., Indonesia and New Zealand. When the heat is deeper in the earth, it is more difficult and more expensive to find. Those constraints have kept the sector’s share of U.S. electricity generation at less than 1%.

Technological advances in well drilling, modeling and sensor technology are expected to change that: The Energy Department estimates geothermal energy could power the equivalent of more than 65 million U.S. homes by 2050.

New funding for a startup called Fervo Energy follows drilling results showing declining costs in the sector.

The industry began changing about five years ago, when companies like Google launched efforts to run their operations on renewable power 24/7 and found that wind and solar, which can’t supply uninterrupted power, couldn’t get there on their own.

“It created this huge market momentum around looking at something new," said Tim Latimer, Fervo’s chief executive. “That’s what allowed us to put geothermal on the map for the first time in a long time."

Geothermal energy is more typically used for heating and cooling. Instead of heat, this process relies on the steady underground temperature a short distance below the surface. That reduces the amount of heating and cooling needed on hot and cold days.

Fervo, by using horizontal drilling and pumping water underground through fractures in rock in a process similar to fracking, found that many more parts of the world could economically generate electricity from geothermal energy.

After the water is heated up deep underground, it returns to the surface, where it transfers the heat to another liquid with a lower boiling point. That generates steam, which spins turbines for generating electricity. Geothermal power is currently much pricier than wind, solar and natural gas power, putting pressure on the industry to reduce costs.

Fervo is raising $244 million from investors including Devon, billionaire former Enron trader John Arnold, Liberty Mutual Investments and commodity trader Mercuria. Devon is putting in $100 million, one of the biggest such investments by an oil-and-gas company in a clean-energy startup.

BP was among the investors that recently put $182 million into Canadian startup Eavor Technologies, which counts Chevron among its early backers and tries to simplify geothermal by essentially burying a large radiator deep underground and circulating fluid through it. Chesapeake Energy recently made an early stage bet on a startup called Sage Geosystems that is led by a former Shell executive.

Old oil-and-gas wells could be retrofitted to produce geothermal power, while existing wells can extract geothermal energy alongside fossil fuels, potentially helping accelerate the industry’s growth.

Oil companies understand subsurface geology, have experience building infrastructure projects and have cash available to deploy. That is why Chevron is joining with other companies and pursuing geothermal pilot projects in Japan, Indonesia and the U.S., said Barbara Harrison, vice president of offsets and emerging technologies at Chevron New Energies.

“We are choosing to pursue direct investment in novel geothermal technologies in a way that we’ve not directly invested in wind or solar," she said.

About 60% of Fervo’s roughly 80 employees have an oil-and-gas background, said Latimer, a Texas native and former drilling engineer for BHP Billiton.

Fervo said drilling costs for its first four horizontal wells for a project in Utah fell to $4.8 million per well from $9.4 million a couple of years ago at its first commercial project in Nevada. The company aims to soon reach electricity costs around $100 per megawatt hour.

Fervo recently began sending electricity from the Nevada operation to the local grid to power Google data centers and other local projects. In Utah, it hopes to produce enough electricity to power hundreds of thousands of homes.

“Once the industry is proven, I would not be surprised for today’s oil-and-gas industry to either buy or build their way to be significant players in advanced geothermal," said Arnold, a widely followed energy investor who put $30 million into Fervo through his family office.

Google is looking for more potential sites for geothermal power, said Maud Texier, the company’s global director of clean energy and decarbonization development. Companies are willing to pay more for geothermal because it can be a hedge against wind and solar, she said. “Corporate buyers have a key role to play," Texier said.

Additional support is coming from Washington. The Energy Department recently granted $60 million to a trio of projects from companies including Chevron and Fervo, with a further boost coming from tax credits that were part of the 2022 climate law.

Jennifer Hiller contributed to this article.

Write to Amrith Ramkumar at amrith.ramkumar@wsj.com and Benoît Morenne at benoit.morenne@wsj.com

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