Startups investing in geothermal energy

Startups investing in geothermal energy

At the end of August, the American company Fervo Energy announced that it had raised $ 138 million in funds to carry out its next-generation geothermal projects. Geothermal energy is a source of energy that uses the heat of the earth's crust to obtain electricity or to heat homes and offices. Despite being renewable, geothermal energy is a niche energy, which represents a negligible percentage of global electricity generation capacity: just 0.2%, roughly equal to 16 gigawatts.

But things could change, thanks to the need - dictated by the ecological transition - of low-emission and stable sources in production with which to replace fossil fuels. The United States and Japan, which have large reserves, want geothermal energy to count more in their energy mix. In the European Union, on the other hand, geologists are pressing the Commission to draw up a strategy at EU level.

The main problem of geothermal energy, the one that has hindered its growth so far, is geography: they are in fact few are the sites where it is possible to easily extract the Earth's steam, and practically always they are near hot springs and geysers. However, a series of new technologies under development should make it possible to break this constraint, facilitating access to geothermal resources or even opening up to their exploitation anywhere in the world.

New proposals Fervo, for example, wants to readjust the typical processes of the oil industry - such as horizontal drilling and the use of fiber optic sensors - to make it easier to reach those heat deposits to which it is too difficult and expensive to arrive with traditional techniques. The company is busy building its first commercial project: a 5 megawatt site in Nevada that will provide electricity to Google's data center in the state. The digital giants are particularly interested in sources capable of guaranteeing clean and continuous energy, having also invested in nuclear fusion startups. The ex-CEO of the company, Eric Schmidt, is also supporting Project InnerSpace, a non-profit initiative that aims to promote the spread of geothermal.

In addition to Fervo, to draw on know-how Also in the hydrocarbon sector is the Canadian geothermal company Eavor Technologies, which has been able to capture the attention - and the capital - of two big names in the sector such as BP and Chevron, eager to reorient themselves towards solutions that are more consistent with the decarbonisation path.

Journey to the center of the Earth Even more ambitious are the objectives of Quaise Energy, a startup from Massachusetts linked to the prestigious MIT, which thinks it can "unlock" the geothermal potential hidden in every terrain, not only in those affected by phenomena of volcanic origin. Most geothermal projects do not go deeper than 3 kilometers; but if it were possible to drill much further, around 10 kilometers, steam could be extracted for power plants anywhere in the world.

The available technologies do not allow this. Quaise, however, may have found the solution: it is developing a process that allows deep rocks to be drilled, melted and vaporized through high-frequency rays produced by a gyrotron (a device also used in nuclear fusion experiments). The challenge lies in bringing this technology from the laboratory to the outside world, making it economical and energy-efficient, and making sure it does not create seismic risks. The U.S. government supports the Quaise effort with a $ 5 million grant from the Department of Energy's agency for advanced research projects: today geothermal is worth less than 1% of the American mix, but by 2050 it could generate 8.5 percent of the electricity the nation requires.

Among the most innovative US geothermal companies is Zanskar. Aware of how difficult it is to discover profitable heat resources, the startup carries out site mapping and measurements of seismic signals; entrusts the collected data to machine learning software and finally creates virtual models of the fields, useful for energy companies to get a better idea of ​​the potential and risks of an area.

The renewed interest in geothermal energy due to technological progress should lead to an almost doubling of world geothermal capacity in eight years, with an output estimated by Bloomberg Nef at 27 gigawatts by 2030.

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