SLB business development manager for geothermal, and carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration (CCUS) solutions
As the tangible impacts of climate change become impossible to ignore, more people are realizing the need to switch to clean sources of energy to power their daily lives. While much of the focus is on wind and solar, there are other forms of renewable energy that have the potential to make a significant contribution in achieving a more sustainable future. One of the most promising is geothermal energy. Not only is it a proven solution, it has some inherent advantages that may surprise people unfamiliar with this sector.
It’s always about the economics
Geothermal energy is green and plentiful, and it can be used for generating electricity or heating and cooling buildings. However, in several parts of the world its available potential is far greater than current utilization, and while it has an important role to play in the energy systems of many countries, it has yet to become a mainstream solution. About a decade ago, an increase in US federal funding for renewable energy projects enabled it to start gaining some traction. But by the time technology for geothermal resource development was ready, the funding had been exhausted.
Renewed interest in clean energy from the public, markets, and energy industry shareholders over the last couple of years has revived investment viability. The growing shift in people’s priorities and innovative clean energy generation technologies suggest that geothermal energy’s moment has finally arrived. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) World Energy Outlook 2022 indicates that pledges announced for geothermal power generation show an increase from 16 GW in 2021 to 102 GW by 2050.
An inherently renewable resource
Geothermal energy taps into the heat that exists deep below the Earth’s surface. Superheated water extracted from these depths is converted into steam to generate electricity. The steam cools and condenses, and the water is returned to the subsurface to restart the cycle. Massive amounts of power can be generated with minimal CO2 emissions. The Earth has been generating heat for about 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so for billions more because of ongoing radioactive decay in its core. Steam powered the start of the industrial revolution and now, it is at the center of a new one.
Investors focused on maximizing short-term profits were put off by the large upfront costs. However, that is starting to change, thanks to help from an unlikely source. While not always considered part of the solution for a clean energy future, the oil and gas industry already possesses much of the expertise needed to make geothermal energy viable.
Decades of studying the complexities of the subsurface, understanding and harnessing the Earth’s resources, efficiently managing large assets, developing advanced technologies, and optimizing subsurface and surface integration with efficient infrastructure design have uniquely qualified the hydrocarbon industry to meet the geothermal challenge. These skills can now be applied to geothermal projects, where the only resource extracted from the Earth is renewable subsurface heat.
Repurposing highly developed know-how, technologies, and infrastructure to address the planet’s changing energy needs gives the geothermal industry a significant edge in the clean energy revolution. With experts transferring their knowledge from one resource to another, applying skillsets and technologies similar to those they have already mastered, both the investment and time to bring geothermal energy to market greatly reduce.
No hidden costs
While harnessing wind and solar energy has gained popularity because of lower startup costs, it should be noted that these solutions engender significant back-end costs, such as batteries for energy storage to ensure an uninterrupted supply of electricity. When these aspects and maintenance costs are factored in, an investment in geothermal projects is approximately the same as one in wind or solar energy. Moreover, because of its inherent 24/7 availability irrespective of weather, geothermal energy avoids the supply chain and sustainability issues associated with battery production. Another advantage of geothermal energy is that it is a domestic resource. It enables electric power supply diversification and reduces the risk of price increases due to rising fuel costs.
Time to act
The time for sitting on the fence is over. We need to invest in sustainable, safe, cost-effective, and reliable solutions to the changing energy demands of our world. The benefits and possibilities of geothermal energy make that task considerably easier.
Oman has joined the group of nations committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with the objective of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degC above preindustrial levels. Exploring the country’s geothermal potential by leveraging its extensive oil and gas expertise, subsurface datasets, and technology access can be one of the paths to success.