[Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the February 2020 edition of E&P. Subscribe to the magazine here.]
Right around the time that fracking cracked open the public’s awareness in 2011, I found myself working for a couple of months in Alaska. In my short time there, I learned much about alternative energy resources that were making an impact in the state’s interior at places like the Chena Hot Springs Resort. Located about 60 miles north of Fairbanks, the resort has the only geothermal-based district heating system operating in Alaska. The current system serves all 46 buildings on site, all are heated geothermally using 165 F water flowing at 250 gpm, saving the resort an estimated $183,000 per year in displaced diesel fuel.
Chena is one example of many demonstrating the utility of using the planet’s natural heat to generate energy. Interest in geothermal is continuing to build, as demonstrated by the recent green-lighting of the Eden Geothermal Project in Cornwall, U.K. The project secured £16.8 million in funding in October 2019 to pay for Phase 1, which includes the drilling of a geothermal well 4.5 km into the granite formation in the summer, according to a project press release.
Granite is a hard cry from the softer sedimentary rocks that traditional oil and gas bits cut into. Advancements in metallurgy, design considerations and more have made it possible to drill 3-mile laterals with minimum bit changes in shale. What if we applied that existing knowledge to new ideas to develop a better, more suitable bit for use in geothermal drilling?
In December 2019, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded the University of Texas a $1 million grant to launch the new Geothermal Entrepreneurship Organization (GEO), which will bring together engineers, researchers and entrepreneurs to develop technologies and launch companies to help advance the geothermal energy industry, according to a press release.
The organization aims to leverage areas of excellence in geosystems and drilling engineering at the University of Texas to spur geothermal technology development and maturation.
“It’s a straightforward concept. Drilling technically complex, high-temperature and high-pressure wells is a core strength of the oil and gas industry. Let’s use all of that learning and expertise to drill for heat—tapping a vast CO2-free, clean energy source,” said Jamie Beard, executive director of the GEO at the University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering, in a press release.
Oil and gas are often painted in a less than pleasing light by climate activists pushing for the death of fossil fuels. Climate change is real. The energy transition is underway, and oil and gas technologies have a role to play in the success of that transition. Rather than throw the “drill, baby, drill” technology baby out with the bathwater, let’s put it to good use.