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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

How rural southwest Utah is proving the potential of renewable geothermal energy

Utah FORGE research project site
David Condos
Renewable geothermal energy could play a big role in fighting climate change. Recent breakthroughs at a research site in rural southwest Utah are proving that underground heat could have the potential to provide clean power almost anywhere. July 6, 2023.

There’s a new hotspot in the world of geothermal energy: a seemingly sleepy valley in Beaver County.

Its secret? The valley sits on top of bedrock that reaches temperatures up to 465 degrees Fahrenheit.

Joseph Moore, who manages the Utah FORGE research project, pointed across a dirt parking lot to a well being drilled at the University of Utah’s subterranean lab.

“If you think about ovens and turkeys, you can cook a turkey in that well if you want to lower one down,” Moore said. “This is one of the hottest areas in the country.”

The heat beneath our feet is exactly why this project is here. When the U.S. Department of Energy was looking to invest $220 million in a geothermal energy research station in 2018, it picked the university’s proposal to build on this spot near the town of Milford.

The mission of the FORGE project — which stands for Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy — isn’t to produce its own electricity. It’s to test tools and techniques through trial and error and, in the process, answer a big question: Can you pipe cool water through cracks in hot underground rock and create a geothermal plant almost anywhere?

That idea is known as an enhanced geothermal system. American scientists have been trying to figure out how to make it work since they first began testing the concept five decades ago in New Mexico. What researchers are now discovering in this corner of southwest Utah could help pave the way for projects that might someday power your home or office without greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we can extract even 2% of the energy between 2 and 4 miles depth, we would have more than 2,000 times the amount of energy [Americans] use yearly,” Moore said. “That's where its potential is, and that's why the Department of Energy is so interested.”

The Utah FORGE project recently hit a milestone, proving it could drill two geothermal wells and send water between them. Here, drill site manager Leroy Swearingen supervises work on the project’s production well, July 6, 2023.
David Condos
The Utah FORGE project recently hit a milestone, proving it could drill two geothermal wells and send water between them. Here, drill site manager Leroy Swearingen supervises work on the project’s production well, July 6, 2023.

High up on the site’s drill rig, a team of workers screwed together pipes taller than a two-story house. The giant pieces of metal swung into place suspended from wires before twisting, locking and plunging underground.

Technical lead John McLennan stood nearby in a white hard hat and safety goggles, watching it all through a window while monitoring readings on a computer screen.

“This particular well we've drilled to just under 11,000 feet in depth,” said McLennan, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Utah.

“This is big drill pipe. This is 5-and-a-half inch, so it's a challenge to handle that.”

Six years after drilling began, McLennan’s team recently completed a major milestone. They proved for the first time they could in fact pump water from one well, through underground cracks, to a second well.

Geothermal energy has been around for decades, including in Utah. But it’s typically been limited to places that naturally have hot water below the surface, such as geysers or hot springs.

“That doesn't do much good if you're living in Missouri,” McLennan said. “But what people have realized is that if you drill deep enough, you're going to get heat no matter what.”

The Utah FORGE workers on drill rig
David Condos
FORGE technical lead John McLennan checks depth readings on a computer monitor while a drilling crew works on one of the project’s wells. July 6, 2023.

Geothermal anywhere?

Here’s how it works. The crew drills the injection well, where the water goes down into the ground, at an angle. They then engineer cracks in the hot underground rock surrounding that well with hydraulic fracturing. Finally, they drill a second well — the production well — which lines up next to the first well thousands of feet below ground.

When water is pumped down the injection well, it travels through the cracks — picking up heat along the way — and resurfaces through the production well, where the steam turns turbines to generate energy. The water then cools and gets recycled again.

Other than the cracks they create, McLennan said, the rock is virtually impermeable. So it creates a closed-loop system — the same water circulating through the process over and over — aside from some small amounts lost in the rock or to condensation.

When it’s eventually running at full capacity, McLennan said, the FORGE project could have up to 50,000 barrels of water cycling through the loop.

That may sound like a lot, especially in the parched west Utah desert. Stefan Kirby, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, said there are a couple of reasons why it still works.

The shallow aquifers in this part of Beaver County have high concentrations of naturally occurring minerals and chemicals, such as salt and sulfate. So geothermal operations aren’t taking away water that could have gone to people or animals.

“It's not drinking water quality,” Kirby said. “It's probably four or five times over what would be a drinking water standard.”

There are concerns about any project that requires large amounts of water in a drought-prone area. But Kirby, who has studied the local aquifer system, said those 50,000 barrels equate to only a few acre-feet of water — a drop in the bucket compared to what’s available underground.

“It's almost nothing,” Kirby said. “In that part of the basin, it's very reasonable to think there's tens of thousands of acre-feet recharging and discharging every year.”

According to a Department of Energy report, the geothermal energy field could grow to the point where it provides 8.5% of the nation’s power generation by 2050 — exponential growth from the tiny fraction it provides now — without significantly impacting how much water the U.S. power sector consumes as a whole.

In places that don’t have access to rivers, lakes or aquifers, enhanced geothermal systems could run on municipal wastewater, making the technology even more widely accessible.

This graphic shows how the enhanced geothermal system cycles water between wells at the Utah FORGE project in Beaver County.
Courtesy of Utah FORGE
This graphic shows how the enhanced geothermal system cycles water between wells at the Utah FORGE project in Beaver County.

Answered questions

Some private companies are already starting to take the FORGE project’s research and run with it.

One is Fervo Energy, which just hit a milestone of its own, producing power for the first time at its geothermal pilot project in Nevada. That plant is slated to power Google data centers later this year.

For its next big endeavor, Fervo will break ground on a new project — Cape Station — right next door to the FORGE site near Milford. It plans to send that power to California utility customers within a few years.

Fervo government affairs and policy manager Ben Serrurier said the fact that researchers have already explored the geology beneath Beaver County was a deciding factor in choosing to put its billion-dollar project there.

“Drilling thousands of feet underground is a risky enterprise,” Serrurier said. “Being able to look at what FORGE is discovering in Utah takes a lot of the unknown out of it.”

Historically, he said, it’s been a challenge to produce water that’s hot enough — and in large enough quantities — to make enhanced geothermal power generation feasible. And on a practical level, the same integral heat also makes it more challenging. Some of the equipment geothermal engineering has borrowed from the oil and gas industry, such as the rubber seals between drill pipes, has trouble holding up to temperatures beyond 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

The recent advances at the FORGE site and Fervo’s Nevada project, Serrurier said, prove it’s possible to drill deeper and more efficiently than before.

“There is no longer that technology question. We answered that question,” Serrurier said. “Can you reach temperatures to produce electricity, in our case 375 degrees Fahrenheit? Yes. Can you produce flow rates over 60 liters a second that are required to produce electricity? Yes.”

Pipes line up near the drill rig at the Utah FORGE project. The research done at this site in the past few years is taking some of the unknowns out of geothermal exploration. July 6, 2023.
David Condos
Pipes line up near the drill rig at the Utah FORGE project. The research done at this site in the past few years is taking some of the unknowns out of geothermal exploration. July 6, 2023.

Racing against time

Even as the technology catches up, there are still hurdles before geothermal starts powering more light bulbs in a town near you.

One is easing regulations around building geothermal projects, according to Jeremy Harrell, the chief strategy officer for ClearPath, a D.C.-based research and advocacy group focused on clean energy.

There are plenty of government incentives for building new projects, he said, but permitting rules haven’t kept pace.

“Our regulatory structure in this country was created in the ‘70s when climate wasn't an urgent problem,” Harrell said. “Now, we have a need to significantly deploy clean energy generation across this country at a rapid scale … and we need a different structure in place.”

He estimates the U.S. will need to build more than 20,000 clean energy projects between now and 2050 to hit the country’s goals for a future with net zero emissions. But today, it’s often more cumbersome to get approval to drill for underground heat than to drill for oil, Harrell said, sometimes taking three or four years to get a permit.

“That's simply not going to work if we have any shot of reaching deep emissions reductions,” Harrell said.

Harrell suggests policy reforms that would exclude geothermal projects from a full environmental impact study for each exploratory test well — similar to the exemptions that oil and gas companies have now — and then require the study only before building a geothermal plant.

It’s important to remember that just because a project is producing green energy doesn’t mean it has no environmental impact, said Amalesh Dhar, who studies environmental impacts in the Renewable Resources Department at Canada’s University of Alberta.

For example, Dhar said, the construction of geothermal plants can disturb soil, vegetation and wildlife habitats. But with proper management — such as restoring disturbed landscapes — those effects can be limited.

“As soon as somebody's done with the plant,” Dhar said, “then reclamation should start.”

Other researchers have concerns that the hydraulic fracturing employed to create the cracks that geothermal water passes through — although done at lower pressures than the fracking used in the natural gas industry — could lead to an increase in earthquake activity.

Even if a geothermal plant’s environmental impact isn’t zero, Dhar said, its operation is inherently leaps and bounds better for the planet than the fossil fuel energy production much of the country uses now.

To that point, ClearPath’s Harrell said, the pressing reality of climate change has raised the stakes for meeting the nation’s green energy transition goals. If regulators don’t speed up the geothermal permitting process, he said, the country will have a hard time cutting emissions fast enough to curb global warming.

“Everything has tradeoffs, right? You’re not going to have zero environmental impact on building anything,” Harrell said.

FORGE project manager Joseph Moore holds up a sample of underground rock in a parking lot near where his research team is studying how to extract energy from the heat beneath our feet. July 6, 2023.
David Condos
FORGE project manager Joseph Moore holds up a sample of underground rock in a parking lot near where his research team is studying how to extract energy from the heat beneath our feet. July 6, 2023.

Boom and bust

So that is geothermal’s big picture potential: fighting climate change. But it can have local impacts, too.

As rural communities struggle to keep their populations and economies afloat, welcoming green energy industries could offer a chance to reinvent themselves.

Looking out from the Utah FORGE site near Milford, dozens of white wind turbines whirl against the backdrop of the Mineral Mountains. To the west, solar panels glisten over hundreds of acres.

Fervo’s new geothermal project, which breaks ground in late September, is expected to bring more than 6,000 jobs to Beaver County — which has fewer than 7,500 total residents — over the next few years.

“We have seen years of economic turmoil, boom and bust, whether it's through mining, whether it's through agriculture, or whether it's through the railroad system,” Beaver County strategic development director Jen Wakeland said. “This energy creation diversifies the portfolio to even out some of those highs and lows.”

Farming and mining are still the big players here, and those industries aren’t going away anytime soon. But the potential for high-paying energy jobs and internship opportunities at local facilities, Wakeland said, will give more of the county’s young people a chance to plan a future there.

“It's a really great way for us to stop exporting our kids to everywhere else.”

She notes an empty spot on the map roughly 15 miles west of Milford where the mining boomtown of Frisco once stood. At its peak in the late 1800s, Frisco had nearly as many residents as the whole county does today. But now, it’s a ghost town — the stone kilns that used to smelt its silver are just about all that’s left.

If rural communities like those in Beaver County aren’t open to rethinking their economic future, Wakeland said, more towns could risk following Frisco’s fate.

Literally “the ground beneath our feet,” Wakeland said, “can really make the difference in a strong economy or one that decides to wither away.”

Corrected: September 19, 2023 at 4:30 PM MDT
This story was updated to reflect new estimates on the needed number of clean energy projects as provided by Jeremy Harrell, the chief strategy officer of ClearPath.
David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
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