A next-generation geothermal plant backed by Google has started sending carbon-free electricity to the grid in Nevada, where the tech company operates some of its massive data centers.
On Tuesday, Google and geothermal developer Fervo Energy said that electrons began flowing from the first-of-a-kind facility earlier this month. The 3.5-megawatt project, called Project Red, is now supplying power directly to the Las Vegas–based utility NV Energy.
The announcement comes more than two years after Google and Fervo signed a corporate agreement to develop the “enhanced geothermal” plant. Unlike conventional geothermal plants, which tap into heat found close to the earth’s surface, Houston-based Fervo uses advanced drilling techniques to access resources that are deeper or trickier to reach than hot springs or geysers.
The pilot project’s completion is a meaningful step in the growing global effort to harness the earth’s heat.
In the United States, geothermal energy supplies only about 3,700 megawatts (3.7 gigawatts) of electricity, or 0.4 percent of total U.S. electricity generation last year. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, geothermal could provide potentially 90 gigawatts of firm and flexible power to America’s grid by 2050 — assuming that enhanced systems like Fervo’s catch on as a widespread renewable energy option.
Fervo’s project has a relatively small capacity: enough to power roughly 2,600 U.S. homes at once. Still, that’s more electricity than any of the world’s 40-some enhanced geothermal systems have previously achieved, according to the company.
Google said it inked the agreement in May 2021 as part of a larger strategy to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. The prior year, the search-engine giant set a target of operating all of its power-hungry data centers and office campuses worldwide on “24/7 carbon-free energy” by 2030, a goal that requires not just purchasing renewable power but also accelerating the development of innovative energy technologies.
“When we began our partnership with Fervo, we knew that a first-of-a-kind project like this would require a wide range of technical and operational innovations,” Michael Terrell, Google’s senior director of energy and climate, wrote in a November 28 blog post.
“The result is a geothermal plant that can produce round-the-clock [carbon-free energy] using less land than other clean energy sources,” he said, adding that Google “worked closely with Fervo to overcome obstacles and prove that this technology can work.”
Google declined to share financial details about its agreement with Fervo or the cost of the electricity that Project Red is producing.
Drilling deep for clean energy
Geothermal resources are available virtually everywhere underground, representing a potentially vast supply of clean electricity and industrial heat. Yet most of those resources are too deep or technically complicated to reach cost-effectively using traditional methods.
Fervo, which has raised more than $180 million since 2017, is among dozens of companies in the U.S. and worldwide that are striving to develop easier and cheaper ways of unleashing this geothermal potential.
The startup uses horizontal drilling techniques and fiber-optic sensing tools gleaned from the oil and gas industry. Technicians create fractures in hard, impermeable rocks found far below the earth’s surface, then pump the fractures full of water and working fluids. The super-hot rocks heat those liquids, eventually producing steam that drives electric turbines. The idea is to create geothermal reservoirs in places where naturally occurring resources aren’t available.
In recent years, enhanced geothermal projects in a handful of other countries were shut down after triggering earthquakes and rattling surrounding cities. Since then, companies have stepped up efforts to monitor and mitigate induced seismicity. Fervo said it had adopted a protocol developed by DOE to avoid causing seismic events at its project sites.
The startup first began drilling in Humboldt County, Nevada in early 2022. Project Red was initially anticipated to be a 5-megawatt facility that would come online last year.
At the geothermal site, two wells reach 7,700 feet deep and then connect with horizontal conduits stretching some 3,250 feet long. Fervo’s team flows fluid into the project’s artificial reservoir, where the liquid can reach temperatures of up to 376 degrees Fahrenheit. In July, Fervo announced that it successfully completed a full-scale well test in Nevada that confirmed the commercial viability of its next-generation technology.
Roughly four months later, its first power plant is officially up and running.
“We did what we set out to do,” Sarah Jewett, Fervo’s vice president of strategy, said in an email to Canary Media.
Through the agreement with Google, “We proved our drilling technology, established Project Red as the most produced enhanced geothermal system in history, and delivered carbon-free electrons to the grid at a time when competing clean, firm energy developers have struggled to execute their projects,” she said.
To boost America’s geothermal capacity, the DOE has set a goal of slashing the cost of power from enhanced geothermal systems to $45 per megawatt-hour by 2035 — a 90 percent drop from today’s prices. Fervo currently produces power at a “significantly” higher cost than the DOE’s target, Tim Latimer, the company’s CEO, told Utility Dive in July. Still, he said the startup remains on track to hit $45/MWh in the coming years as it scales its technology.
On that point, Fervo is already getting started on a 400-megawatt geothermal power plant in Beaver County, Utah called Cape Station. This summer, Fervo began drilling the first of what will become 100 geothermal wells for the project, which is expected to start delivering 24/7 electricity to the grid in 2026 and reach full-scale production in 2028, Jewett said.
Google, for its part, said it will continue working with Fervo and other companies to accelerate the commercialization of advanced clean energy technologies. In September, the tech giant formed a partnership with Project InnerSpace, a nonprofit that aims to expand the use of geothermal energy worldwide. Google said it will lend its data and software capabilities to help develop a tool for mapping and assessing global geothermal resources.
“For geothermal to grow over the coming decades, we need big players with global scale and breakthrough technological solutions focused on this massive clean energy resource beneath us,” Jamie Beard, executive director of Project InnerSpace, said in an earlier statement about the Google partnership.