Biden's energy secretary travels to Houston to tout geothermal energy investments ahead of midterms

Thursday, September 8, 2022

By Kyra Buckley

Houston Chronicle

The Department of Energy is seeking to make electricity generated from intense heat thousands of feet below the earth’s surface a viable low-emissions option for powering millions of homes, U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said during a visit to Houston on Thursday.

In addition to making geothermal energy available for use on electric grids, the department's goal is to make engineered geothermal energy systems 90 percent cheaper, to $45 per megawatt hour, by 2035. 

The announcement comes on the first trip Granholm has made to Houston since passage of the major tax and energy bill last month – the Inflation Reduction Act – that allocates funds for more clean energy projects. Her visit also comes ahead of the November midterm elections in which Democrats hope their vision of a transition to low carbon energy will win over voters concerned with climate change and the economy.  

“The United States has a vast, geothermal energy resource lying right beneath our feet,” Granholm said in a statement, “and this program will make it economical to bring that power to American households and businesses.” 

To develop traditional geothermal energy and what’s called enhanced geothermal systems on a large scale, the government is investing nearly $200 million in research, according to the Energy Department. The majority of those funds – up to $165 million – are allocated for transitioning oil and gas practices to geothermal energy extraction. 

“Geothermal power is everywhere,” Granholm told an invited crowd at the Houston Plumbers Local 68 union hall. “It's just a question of how far you have to go to pull it up to be able to use it for electricity. It's renewable, it is reliable, it's available 24/7.”

Granholm said under the Inflation Reduction Act, there is a 30 percent tax credit for companies who invest in or produce geothermal energy, as well as for families who want to install geothermal heat pumps.

Right now most geothermal power in the U.S. is produced by drilling and extracting hot water from underground, and then reinjecting the water after generating the electricity.

The Enhanced Geothermal Shot is about developing reservoirs to extract just the heat and not the water from underground, according to Doug Blankenship with the Sandia National Laboratories. Blankenship has worked in geothermal research since the 1980s and is an advisor to the Energy Department on geothermal technology.  

The process for enhanced geothermal systems involves injecting fluid deep underground to, essentially, travel through rock and pick up heat, Blankenship said. The fluid would travel back above ground so the heat can be collected to generate electricity, and then the fluid would be reinjected into the system.  

If the process sounds familiar, it’s somewhat similar to hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas drilling. Blankenship said advancements in fracking have helped improve geothermal research – and that oil and gas workers already have the skills needed to work in geothermal energy if it does become a widely used power source. 

“From the roughneck on the rig, through the engineering capabilities, up into the head office, those skills are directly transferable,” Blankenship said. 

That’s one of the reasons Granholm made the announcement in Houston, to highlight the opportunities in geothermal energy for workers already trained in the oil and gas industry. Her overall message centered around the potential jobs created if a geothermal energy sector does emerge, likely in part to address critics of the energy transition concerned that oil and gas jobs will disappear.   

“We'll need people who know their way around the drilling equipment,” she said, “especially oil and gas workers who already have the skills for this technology.” 

Before announcing the geothermal goal, Granholm toured a training center on the Plumbers Local 68 union campus near where 610 North meets I-45. Plumbers often have skills transferable to the oil and gas industry, like welding and servicing pipes, that could also be advantageous in a budding geothermal industry. She also toured a welding classroom before Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner introduced Granholm to guests at the main union hall. 

In addition to funding from the Energy Department for geothermal energy development, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year includes $84 million for four enhanced geothermal system pilot projects. 

The U.S. leads the world in geothermal electricity generation, although in 2021 it accounted for less than one percent of the country’s total utility-scale electricity generation, according to the statistics and analysis arm of the department. Last year power plants in seven mostly western states generated 16 billion kilowatt hours of geothermal electricity.