Geothermal energy may soon be viable in Texas—because of fracking

Hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – has been a boon to the energy industry here in Texas, allowing energy producers to access oil and natural gas deep under the earth’s surface.

It also comes with environmental risks, like air and groundwater pollution. There have been concerns about the connection to increased seismic activity attributed to the underground disposal of fracking waste. Environmental groups also argue that easily-accessible oil and gas takes the focus away from investing in greener energy sources.

But what if fracking technology could be used to tap in to an often-overlooked source of renewable energy? Houston Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson writes that using existing oilfield technology to access geothermal energy could be a way forward – if energy companies and lawmakers want it to be.

Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: So a quick refresher for those of us who haven’t been in a geology classroom for a while. What is geothermal energy and how might it be used to generate electricity?

Chris Tomlinson: Well, I mean, geothermal energy comes from the Earth’s center. The magma is that liquid super hot volcanic pool that’s underneath the earth. And in some places that heat rises high enough that we can drill a pipe down there. And if we put water through that pipe, the water comes back as steam superheated, and you can use that to generate energy.

So what is the relationship between fracking and this potential source of energy?

Well, you know, this source is really expensive using conventional methods. But if you can horizontally drill a pipe through a geothermal zone and you fracture that pipe with water and let that water mix around in that hot rock, you can generate even more steam, more energy, and you can do it much more affordably.

Really? It sounds like we’re sort of at an inflection point here. You talk about a recent report from the University of Texas at Austin that found that it appears we’re at a point where geothermal energy production in Texas is actually feasible. Does it all come down to money? I mean, is that what we’re really talking about here?

Right. They discovered two things. The researchers found that the heat is actually about 20% shallower than that geologists originally thought. And then they calculated the savings that could come from the horizontal drilling and the fracturing and discovered that, yeah, it would be 20% to 43% cheaper using that technology.

Are others using this technology or something quite like that? Or would this be a kind of a pioneering effort as you see it, if in fact, regulators and companies were to get on board?

Well, you know, other countries, most famously Iceland, uses geothermal energy for all of their needs. Hawaii uses it. In the continental United States, California and Nevada are the leaders. Colorado’s about ready to pass some laws that will make it easier and more effective to get that type of energy. And so Texas, you know, we’re just a little behind on this. And we need some enabling laws and some tax credits and some grants to get this technology over the top and available for everyday use.

Do you see that happening here in Texas, knowing Texas politics as you do?

You know, it’s literally a $1 billion question because the authors of the report from the University of Texas argue that this is a way for the oil and gas industry to continue doing what they do well – drill wells, manage fluids, bring up some heat – but it will also compete with the natural gas industry in generating electricity. Right now, the lawmakers are still trying to get over the 2021 freeze. They want energy with an on and off switch and a lot of them are insisting that it will be a natural gas and they won’t consider anything else. So hopefully they’ll get the message that, you know, they need to include geothermal energy. And if they do that, then yeah, I think the sky’s the limit for geothermal energy.

Let’s say that lawmakers were to read your article and decide, “hey, let’s take advantage of this. It won’t take a lot just to get the ball rolling.” How far away would we be from this becoming a reality?

Well, we’ve got a couple of pilot projects underway now that are really promising. So the technology is very advanced. We don’t think it’s going to need a lot of development. So we could see geothermal making headways in five years. We could see it become a major source of electricity in 10 to 15.

The report is funded and supported by the Cynthia and George Mitchell FoundationThe Educational Foundation of America, and Project InnerSpace.

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