A New Type of Geothermal Power Plant Just Made the Internet a Little Greener

A new approach to geothermal energy makes it possible to tap the energy of hot rocks just about anywhere. A pilot plant in Nevada is now helping to power Google data centers.


A New Approach to Geothermal Power

Earlier this month, a geothermal startup called Fervo launched a first-of-its-kind geothermal operation in northern Nevada desert. Known as Project Red, this small pilot plant is producing between 2 and 3 megawatts of power and is helping to power Google data centers. The project represents a new approach to geothermal power that could potentially allow for the harnessing of the Earth's natural heat from hot rocks anywhere in the world.

Geothermal energy currently provides only a small fraction of the global electricity supply due to the fact that geothermal plants are typically constructed in areas with easily accessible naturally heated water sources, such as hot springs and geysers. However, Project Red is different. It is an "enhanced" geothermal system that works by drilling into dry rock and creating an artificial hot spring by pumping down water that returns to the surface much hotter. This innovative strategy relies on hydraulic fracturing techniques developed by the oil and gas industry.

Success and Future Implications

Fervo has announced that its experiment with Project Red has been successful. After a monthlong testing period, it has been able to produce an estimated 3.5 megawatts of electricity using the hot rock system. The project's operational figures have held steady since then, indicating that it is ready for long-term use. The Nevada wells are in close proximity to a traditional geothermal power plant, allowing the project to use existing infrastructure to deliver electricity to the grid.

Although the current output falls short of the initial 5-megawatt estimate, Fervo CEO Tim Latimer believes that further adjustments can increase the electricity production in the future. The success of Project Red provides evidence that this new geothermal approach can be scaled up. Other geothermal plants in northeastern France also generate electricity from dry rocks but operate at cooler temperatures and rely on exploiting natural fault systems in the rock.

Greener Internet and Google's Role

Harnessing geothermal energy could help tech companies, like Google, minimize the environmental impact of power-hungry data centers. While wind and solar power have been utilized to power data centers, the intermittent availability of these energy sources poses challenges. Google has been working to secure 24/7 clean energy for its data centers, and geothermal energy is a promising solution. The new geothermal plant in Nevada, although currently producing a few megawatts of power, demonstrates the potential of this technology. Google continues to explore other alternatives, but currently, geothermal energy is the most viable option beyond wind and solar power.

Challenges and Future Plans

Despite its success, the enhanced geothermal system (EGS) approach still faces challenges. The initial costs of drilling thousands of feet beneath the surface are high, especially due to the difficulty of drilling through hard rocks like granite. Additionally, there's always a risk that an EGS project may not tap enough heat or pump enough water to generate sufficient power or even trigger destructive earthquakes.

However, Fervo has been working on reducing upfront drilling costs and mitigating risks associated with failed projects. Through geological data modeling and collaboration with the US government-funded project called FORGE, Fervo aims to improve the success rate of EGS technology. Fervo's next EGS project in Utah is scheduled to be operational in 2026 and is expected to generate 400 megawatts of power. The company is also exploring additional projects throughout the western US.

The future of geothermal energy looks promising, with the potential to provide a greener alternative for powering various industries, including tech companies' data centers. The success of Project Red and ongoing advancements in EGS technology bring us one step closer to a more sustainable future.