I recently read “The Future of Geothermal in Texas: Contemporary Prospects and Perspectives,” a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin that assesses the potential for geothermal energy development in Texas. The report provides an overview of the current state of geothermal energy in Texas and identifies key challenges and opportunities for future growth.
Below you will find a summary of the key findings from the study that demonstrate the full potential of geothermal energy in Texas. But first, for those that are new to geothermal energy, let’s start with a brief introduction on the technology.
What is Geothermal Energy?
Geothermal energy refers to energy that is produced by the internal natural heat from inside the earth’s core, which at about 4,000 miles down, is roughly as hot as the surface of the sun, over 6,000°C, or 10,832°F.
At 10 kilometers of depth or shallower, just about every point on earth has sufficient heat for power generation. This massive heat resource is viable for electricity production in much of the State of Texas, including near its major population centers, at approximately 6.5 kilometers, a drilling depth typical in parts of the world within the oil and gas industry.
Contrasted with intermittent renewables like solar and wind, geothermal is firm, or ‘baseload’, meaning it is always on, and does not require energy storage to operate. Geothermal also has the lowest lifecycle carbon emissions, smallest land footprint, and lowest water contamination concerns of all energy technologies including solar, nuclear, wind, fossil fuels, and battery storage.
The key is to harness this energy using one of several geothermal technologies, the most common of which are called Engineered (or Enhanced) Geothermal Systems (“EGS”). Newer concepts like Closed-Loop Geothermal Systems (“CLGS”) and Multi-System Hybrids are in development and could play a larger role in the future.
Why Geothermal in Texas? It’s Hot – Above and Below Ground
Texas has favorable geographic conditions for geothermal production – with approximately one million exajoules of heat estimated to be in the upper 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the subsurface. That is 9.4 x 1020 BTU, 163,000 billion barrels of oil equivalent or 2.8 x 1011 gigawatt hours – roughly a million times Texas’ annual electricity generation.
In fact, analysis in this Report and a prior related study concluded that it is likely hotter in the Texas subsurface than previously estimated, by as much as 15%. This difference is significant enough to improve both project economics, and technical feasibility of geothermal development in the State.
As mapped by the temperature of Texas geothermal resources at 6.5 kilometers depth, much of the State is at or near conventional minimum viable temperatures for geothermal power generation.
Why Geothermal in Texas Now?
The state of Texas is also home to deep-water oil and gas exploration and the invention of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, which made the “shale boom” possible in Texas. The state’s oil and gas industry has led to important and enabling improvements in technology.
Over the past 20 years, horizontal drilling, multi-stage fracturing, and managed pressure drilling are some of the newer technologies and methods that have been developed by the oil and gas industry. These disruptive technologies and methods are just starting to be used in geothermal, at which point we should expect breakthrough effects and fast, exponential leaps in capabilities and performance.
The oil and gas players in Texas are expected to play a critical role in realizing performance improvements for geothermal energy in the coming years. When interviewed, almost 80% of oil and gas companies stated that they now have a geothermal strategy in place or in development, and almost 70% noted that there is no geothermal related technical challenge that the oil and gas industry cannot solve.
Oil & Gas Industrial Engagement in Geothermal is Expected to Have Breakthrough Impact on Cost, Efficiency and Scale
Geothermal and upstream oil and gas projects have many overlapping features. Both require a detailed understanding of the subsurface, the drilling and completion of wells, the ability to understand and predict fluid flows in the subsurface, the handling of fluids for flow assurance, and management of large-scale project developments. With similar ancestries, geothermal and upstream oil and gas have the potential to achieve a radical, “step change” style innovation by building on each other’s strengths and resources.
Based on know-how and existing technology transfer alone, its estimated that the oil and gas industry could reduce the cost of geothermal development between 20% to 43% in the coming years, depending on the type of geothermal technology.
Assuming Geothermal projects can achieve the same drilling rate as the oil and gas industry in Texas (15,000 wells per year), it would take approximately 4 years to produce the equivalent energy of all oil and gas used for electricity and heat production currently in the State of Texas.
Oil and Gas Well Reuse – A Unique Geothermal Application for the Lone Star State
Another unique application for Texas includes oil and gas well reuse – It is estimated that an average of 25 billion barrels of warm and hot water is produced annually from oil and gas wells within the United States. The management and disposal of this “co-produced” water adds significantly to operating expenses. This presents an opportunity for geothermal energy to be produced from existing oil and gas wells as either electricity or Direct Use heat.
Geothermal is Complementary with the Texas Oil and Gas Industry and National Security
After the deadly Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, political and consumer preference emphasized reliability with greater attention, and Texas legislators and other officeholders signaled their desire for more firm sources of power, such as geothermal and gas power plants, to be built in Texas.
Substantially increasing the availability of a clean energy like geothermal in the State of Texas could free up natural gas that would have been utilized for domestic energy production for export, in support of allies in search of solutions to energy market instability.
In addition, the report found that construction of geothermal power plants “inside the wire” of DOD military installations through the deployment of proven and emerging geothermal technologies provides an impactful solution to DOD’s current dependence on civilian power grids, with a cost-effective, resilient clean energy that is less vulnerable to attack and natural disaster.
The Quickly Growing Texas Geothermal Startup Ecosystem
As a result of the favorable environment for geothermal production in Texas, entrepreneurship has had a recent revival, with more geothermal businesses launching in the last two years than in the previous ten put together. Many of these startups have benefited from oil and gas funding, and the majority are run by longtime veterans of the oil and gas sector. Many of these businesses have pilot projects and demonstrations planned for Texas or are already implementing them there.
Currently, Texas is home to at least 12 geothermal startups, and many more have personnel working there or are preparing ventures there. Many of these organizations feature former employees of ExxonMobil, Shell, Weatherford, Anadarko, Schlumberger, and bp among their ranks.
On a side note – One prime example includes a startup company called Geothermal Core, a full-cycle E&P geothermal power producer located near Houston, Texas which is preparing to deploy sustainable geothermal power plants in Texas and along the interior Gulf Coast region of the United States, where geothermal resources are proven by vintage oil / gas wells and 3-D seismic data.
Geothermal and Our Global Energy Future
With robust leadership by both Texas and ecosystem stakeholders, geothermal could play a globally significant, and even dominant role in the future energy mix. Researchers in this study calculated multiple growth scenarios for geothermal development placed in the context of the scale of the oil and gas industry and found that drilling 1.4 million wells globally between 2030 and 2050 could meet 77% of the world’s projected electricity demand.
Further, turning to the world’s 2050 demand for heat, researchers found that drilling 600,000 wells globally between 2030 and 2050 could meet more than 100% of the world’s projected demand for thermal energy.
In conclusion, the “The Future of Geothermal in Texas: Contemporary Prospects and Perspectives” report provides a comprehensive overview of the current state and future potential of geothermal energy in Texas. While there is a need for increased investment in geothermal energy development and supportive government policies and incentives, with the right policies and investments in place, Texas has the potential to become a leader in geothermal energy production.