Google: Geothermal could follow 'similar trajectory' to solar

The tech giant’s first geothermal-powered data centers are live in Nevada.

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November 28, 2023
A geothermal plant

Photo credit: Google

Two years after Google announced its partnership with geothermal startup Fervo, two Google-financed wells in Nevada are sending electricity to the grid that serves the company’s data centers.

In what the companies are calling a “first-of-a-kind” project, the Nevada site features horizontal wells to access the subsurface heat, plus fiber-optic cables to capture real-time data about the overall performance of the system. Water pumped through an 8,000 foot well is pushed through fractures, harnessing heat from surrounding rock, and then up through a second horizontal well to the surface, where that heat is used to generate steam.

This “next generation” approach to geothermal allows Fervo to identify the best underground resources and control flow at different depths, Google said. It enables the company to have better demand response capabilities and also to fill in energy gaps from the variability of other renewable energy sources on the grid.

Around a quarter of the United States’ 17 billion kilowatt hours of geothermal capacity is based in Nevada, where geothermal makes up for just under 10% of the state’s total electricity generation. Nationally, geothermal is potentially capable of providing 8.5% of the country’s electricity generation by 2050, according to the Department of Energy; however, it currently makes up just 0.4%

At a global level, the penetration of geothermal isn’t much better — it makes up less than 1% of global electricity generation.

That’s in part because of the high up-front costs of geothermal projects. As Google outlined in a September 2023 paper on the corporate role in advanced carbon-free energy technologies, new commercial projects require geophysical surveys, subsurface mapping, and exploration drilling. These investments often total in the tens of millions of dollars, and that’s before any electricity is produced.

But Google is hoping the road to commercialization for next-generation geothermal will mimic the early days of the tech industry’s solar procurement efforts, Maud Texier, global director of clean energy and decarbonization development, told Latitude Media.

“While there are some important differences between solar and geothermal technologies, we would like to see geothermal power follow a similar trajectory as solar has over the last few decades in terms of rapid cost declines and performance improvements,” Texier said.

That means repeated deployment, process improvements (like those demonstrated in the Fervo partnership, which uses machine learning and is backed by artificial intelligence, and which takes up less space above-ground than traditional geothermal), and big increases in capital investments while the technology scales, she added.

Texier declined to elaborate on Google’s plans for future contract structures and business models for broader investment in geothermal, but said that the availability of carbon-free energy is a “key criteria” for how the company sites future data centers.

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