When people think of renewable energy they usually think of wind and solar power. In spite of its association with fossil fuels, Texas is already a leader in wind with more installed capacity than any other state by far. Yet there are several other forms of renewable energy, and one in particular could be yet another green energy boon to Texas. That energy source is geothermal.
Geothermal generates energy using heat from the Earth’s interior. The most common method involves extracting hot water from underground and using it to generate electricity. The water can also be pumped back into the ground, reheated, and pumped back out, making it a renewable energy source
Geothermal is environmentally friendly, generating 95 percent fewer emissions than coal and 92 percent less than gas. In fact, geothermal’s lifecycle emissions are lower than that of solar photovoltaics. It’s also sustainable; the world’s oldest geothermal plant has been generating electricity since 1913. But most importantly, geothermal is reliable. Wind and solar are heavily dependent on the conditions, meaning that a major breakthrough in energy storage will be needed before they can completely replace other energy sources. Geothermal, on the other hand, is available all the time and will generate power at night and in all weather conditions.
One major disadvantage of geothermal energy is that it is location dependent. Although the Earth’s heat is beneath our feet everywhere, there are only so many places where it is accessible with current technology. Renewables have largely been dominated by wind and solar because they are available almost everywhere. Although geothermal is not yet a viable source of energy for everyone, Texas is one of the places where there is a lot of potential.
Texas actually has a long history of using geothermal energy. Texas’ natural hot springs makes it readily available at a number of sites, including Austin. In fact, at one point the State Capitol was heated using geothermal energy.
Ironically, Texas’ geothermal potential comes in large part thanks to fossil fuels. 12 billion barrels of water is pumped out of the Lone Star State’s oil and gas wells every year. This water can be as hot as 392 degrees fahrenheit, more than enough to generate electricity. Preliminary data from SMU indicated that up to 2,000 MW of geothermal energy could be available just from Texas’ existing oil and gas wells, and that data is from 2005. The fracking boom that has occurred since then means that even more geothermal energy is likely available.
However, Texas’ potential to be a geothermal leader extends far beyond existing oil and gas wells. There are areas that have high temperatures underground but don’t have sufficient permeability or water. Injecting water underground and/or fracturing the rock, which is exactly what’s done with fracking, can create “enhanced geothermal systems” and bring geothermal energy to places where it would otherwise be unavailable. This is where Texas’ expertise with fossil oil and gas could ironically position it to lead a clean energy revolution. After all, who understands drilling underground to extract energy better than Texans?
Texas’ innovative energy ecosystem could foster new technologies that would allow geothermal to become far more widespread than it is now. Indeed, the Biden administration recently released a document for the American Jobs Plan that mentioned geothermal as an area where Texas had outsized potential for energy innovation. The idea of geothermal providing even a significant portion of humanity’s energy may seem like a pipe dream now, but then again so did the idea of the United States becoming a net oil exporter until Texas changed the game.
Geothermal would be a great way to transition the current oil and gas workforce toward renewables. After all, an oil driller’s skills won’t translate to installing wind turbines or solar panels but they could be employed to drill new geothermal energy sites. In fact, former oil workers are already being used for this purpose in Canada. If geothermal is added to Texas’ already considerable wind power industry, then the transition to renewables won’t necessarily need to come at the expense of Texas’ economy.
Unfortunately, Texas’ geothermal potential has thus far gone to waste. Texas does not have a single geothermal power plant compared to 34 in California and 23 in Nevada. One likely reason, aside from the state’s abundant fossil fuel resources, is the high upfront costs. Building a geothermal plant is expensive compared to installing wind turbines. However, geothermal’s potential as a reliable source of clean energy makes such an investment worth it.
Geothermal may not end up being in a silver bullet in the fight against climate change, but the severity of the threat means that it makes sense to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. The world pursued numerous vaccines for COVID-19 simultaneously and a similar approach needs to be taken now. No one knows if the key to transitioning away from fossil fuels will come from solar/wind, geothermal, Gen IV nuclear reactors, or some other technology. The most likely solution will involve a number of different energy sources working in concert. And should geothermal prove to be one of the solutions, Texas can be a big part of that solution.
Photo: Mathieu Neville / Wikimedia Commons