A Ground Swell in Geothermal Energy

How geothermal is changing the game for the energy landscape. And our planet.

Explore Fuseideas
by Alec Radzikowski
VP Group Account Director, Energy

Geothermal energy offers benefits capable of completely changing our clean-energy landscape.  While critics may note potential challenges, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Resource accessibility and upfront installation costs are offset by investments and advancements in this technology, positioning geothermal as an efficient and accessible long term energy solution.

The U.S. Department of Energy says that geothermal energy is capable of producing 90 gigawatts by 2050; a tally 24 times more than current output. That means a power plant with a capacity of 1 gigawatt powers approximately 750,000 households for a year. In other words, by 2050, geothermal is capable of covering half of America’s 131 million households. That’s energy independence.

How does a geothermal system work?

Geothermal energy serves both business and residential entities. By using the natural heat from the Earth’s core, a geothermal heat pump transfers this energy to and from the ground. Energy is transferred via the use of closed loops of plastic pipes buried either horizontally or vertically in the ground. Water circulates through these airtight loops and uses the Earth’s natural underground temperatures to change the climate in a home or business.

And this energy source has multiple environmental and cost saving applications. Geothermal heat pumps heat AND cool your environment. During the summer, unwanted heat inside a facility is transferred back to the ground pipe loop where the Earth cools the water flowing within the piping, returning the water back where it generates cool dehumidified air conditioning for your space. During the winter, this process is reversed to provide heat.

What are the benefits of geothermal energy and is it for me?

  • Renewable and Reliable – Unlike fossil fuels which are finite and generate harmful greenhouse gases, geothermal energy is a virtually limitless resource. It operates with an extremely high level of reliability, compared to other renewable energy like wind and solar. Geothermal systems operate 24/7 regardless of weather conditions.
  • Environmentally Friendly – Geothermal energy production emits relatively low greenhouse gases, making it an important player in the fight against climate change. Fossil-fuel based power plants release large amounts of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere whereas geothermal releases are nominal.
  • Economic Benefits – In addition to the environmental benefits, increased geothermal energy production is creating more job opportunities, both from construction/operation of plants to maintenance of wells and distribution systems. Geothermal energy also provides an enhanced level of security by reducing independence on imported fossil fuels and current fluctuating fuel prices. As suggested by the Environmental Protection Agency, a geothermal heat pump can save an owner 70% on heating costs and 50% on cooling costs. These are benefits worth exploring.

Networked geothermal and community impact

Due to significant planning and upfront costs of installing a geothermal system, energy companies and the communities they serve are now focused on building networks connected through a shared piping loop, aptly called “networked geothermal.” In support of these networks, utility companies are working to develop programs that serve both as a learning exercise and an aggressive energy-efficiency push for older structures in need of a retrofit.

In the Spring of 2023, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, an energy engineering leader, broke ground as the first site on a networked geothermal pilot program with National Grid. This project will provide pollution-free heating and cooling to homeowners, low-income residents, commercial buildings and a portion of the University’s offices.

As the Lowell projects unfold, National Grid and the City of Boston are moving forward on a second pilot program at the Franklin Street Apartments to further support the city’s goal of decarbonizing public housing by 2030.

The future of geothermal

Ironically, expertise in the oil and gas industry is playing a key role in the advancement of geothermal technology. One of the biggest challenges in geothermal construction is sourcing a proper site. Conventional geothermal systems rely on naturally occurring, underground reservoirs of hot water or steam. The conditions must be right and not every location will be suitable.

The initial Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS) involve engineering methods to extract heat from the Earth’s surface where traditional geothermal resources are limited. EGS creates an artificial reservoir by injecting fluid into hot, dry rock formations deep underground. This fluid circulates through the fractures in the rock, absorbs the heat and is pumped back to the surface to be used as an energy source.

In addition to large scale leadership demonstrated by National Grid and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, startup company Fervo Energy noted during this year’s MIT Energy Conference the success of its full-scale commercial pilot, Project Red. Project Red made history in 2023, being the first EGS program to produce a reliable source of electricity via geothermal solution. During a 30-day well test, the company reported generating 3.5 megawatts of electricity production, enough to power roughly 2,500 homes.

As we speak with industry experts, we’ve come to understand there is no “silver bullet” to the reduction of carbon-emissions and the fight against climate change. Among a diverse set of solutions supporting clean-energy technology, geothermal offers both environmental benefits and owner operating cost reduction benefits. Based on its benefits and recent advancements, it’s clear geothermal energy is an important part of the equation and merits your exploration during review of energy options.