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Is Heat the Solution for Global Warming?

HBS alumna Alexandra Bailey Smith (MBA ’23) shares the environmental magic of next-gen geothermal technology.

Next-generation geothermal rocks! At Fervo Energy, we deploy oil and gas technologies to harness heat from the earth to produce clean firm power – decarbonizing the economy, stabilizing the grid, and providing high quality jobs for the energy transition workforce.

What? Sure, that all sounds great, but how can oil and gas technologies coupled with heat be a solution for global warming? This is best answered through a quick history lesson.

Simply stated, geothermal power uses the heat from the earth to produce steam to run a turbine that produces power. To make geothermal power, you need three things – water, hot rock, and a way for that water to flow through the hot rock, called permeability. Picture the geysers in California – a magical place that has all three requirements close to the surface, producing easy to access geothermal energy. Unfortunately, this trifecta is only found in a very limited number of geographies.

Over time, geothermal power producers found a way to address the need for water by pumping their own water from the surface through a wellbore, into the hot fractured rock, and then back to the surface to produce power. This presents two challenges. The first is that this method still requires the presence of natural fractures and hot rock – a combination that is also geographically limited. Second, and perhaps more importantly, natural fractures are really hard to model and even harder to control. The result – geothermal operators pump the water subsurface, expecting it to flow back to the surface, only to lose it to the earth. This has destroyed project performance, economics, and ultimately the reputation of the industry.

Enter Fervo. Instead of searching for these hard-to-control natural fractures, Fervo avoids them. We use oil and gas fracking techniques to produce our own controlled fractures. All we need is hot rock. With existing technologies, this method, a type of enhanced geothermal system, or EGS, can access an estimated 300 GW of reserves across a wide array of geographies in the US. The controlled permeability also drastically reduces the performance risk associated with traditional geothermal.

We have demonstrated this technology at our commercial pilot in Nevada, a 3.5 MW project with Google called Project Red. We are actively drilling our first greenfield development, a 400 MW project in SW Utah referred to as Project Cape. Each of these projects will be connected to the grid, providing clean firm power to decarbonize the end users and stabilize operations.

However, there are applications beyond grid connected power – this is the primary focus of my team at Fervo. We field all the other requests for customers who want clean firm heat and power. This is a long exciting list of technologies and industries that are hoping to decarbonize the economy.

Take Direct Air Capture (DAC) as an example. DAC uses large amounts of heat and power to capture carbon directly from the atmosphere to be permanently stored. The federal government has allocated over $3 billion through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to spur commercialization of DAC technologies. However, because of the massive amount of energy it takes to run the equipment, DAC technologies can actually be net carbon emitters if run on dirty energy. Even the current grid is too dirty for DAC to make sense. Intermittent solar and wind are great options for some of the DAC energy demand, but this equipment is expensive, and for the economics to pan out, the process needs to run 24/7.

Enter Fervo. Our clean firm 24/7 power emits zero emissions during operations. Our clean firm heat is the perfect temperature to supply a large segment of DAC technologies. Combining geothermal and DAC yields the potential to significantly reduce capex requirements, while maximizing net carbon captured. Geothermal is a key to unlocking DAC.

Similarly, look at green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is produced by running water through an electrolyzer. Emissions free hydrogen can decarbonize steelmaking, shipping, chemicals, and a number of other sectors. Green hydrogen is only clean if produced with fully decarbonized energy to run the electrolyzer (an electrolyzer operating with dirty power emits more CO2eq per kg of hydrogen produced than the dirty gray hydrogen made from fossil fuels). Next-generation geothermal is available now to provide clean 24/7 power for hydrogen production.

Decarbonize the grid? Check. Unlock climate technologies? Check. So, to answer the question, yes, heat is a counterintuitive but instrumental solution for global warming!

Alexandra Bailey Smith (MBA ’23) is Fervo’s Strategy Lead. In this role, she leads a team focused on diversification opportunities for geothermal heat and power, strategic initiatives, and corporate strategy. Prior to Fervo, she worked in upstream oil and gas operations, mega-capital projects, and technology ventures roles domestically and internationally for Chevron. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Her free time is spent with her husband playing with their 18 month old daughter.

Edouard Lyndt (MBA ’25) is from Australia. An example of someone who took the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ thing too far, he has explored a range of career paths spanning M&A, strategy, product management, and even (very briefly) professional fighting. Outside of work, he enjoys reading, cooking, and exercise.

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