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A new type of climate-friendly energy is coming online in the U.S. Southwest

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new type of climate friendly energy is coming online in the American Southwest after years of development and nearly a quarter billion dollars of taxpayer investment. It's a way to harness the Earth's natural underground heat to make electricity. KUER's David Condos reports from Utah.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: There's a new hot spot in the world of geothermal energy - a seemingly sleepy valley in Beaver County, Utah. Its secret? It sits on bedrock that reaches temperatures up to 465 degrees.

JOSEPH MOORE: So if you think about ovens and turkeys, you can cook a turkey in that well if you wanted to lower one down.

CONDOS: The well site manager Joseph Moore is talking about sits across a dirt parking lot at the Utah FORGE Project. It's the University of Utah's subterranean lab, funded since 2018 with $220 million from the U.S. Department of Energy.

MOORE: This is a conventional or hot spring.

CONDOS: The mission here is to test geothermal technology through trial and error, paving the way for other projects that could someday power your home or office without greenhouse gas emissions.

MOORE: This is the best site in the country. There are hundreds and hundreds of square miles of area that could be made into a reservoir.

CONDOS: But not a reservoir on the surface, one that's underground in the cracks in that hot rock. Now, geothermal has been around for decades, but it's typically been limited to places that naturally have hot water below the surface. Think geysers and hot springs. So these researchers are here to answer a big question. Can you pipe cool water down one well through cracks in underground rock, where it'll heat up, and then bring it up through a second well, to create a geothermal plant almost anywhere?

(SOUNDBITE OF HISSING)

CONDOS: High up on the site's drill rig, a team of workers screw together pipes taller than a two-story house.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL SQUEALING)

CONDOS: Giant pieces of metal swing into place, suspended from wires, twist, lock and then plunge underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CREAKING)

CONDOS: John McLennan is the project's technical lead.

JOHN MCLENNAN: So we've drilled to just under 11,000 feet in depth.

CONDOS: After six years, his team proved this technique works. It's a closed loop, so the same water keeps cycling through over and over, cooling, heating and becoming steam that turns turbines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY WHIRRING)

CONDOS: But remember, this is a research lab, so it's more guinea pig than power plant.

MCLENNAN: What we're doing here, we are not producing electricity. We are developing the technology so that the private sector can adopt this methodology.

CONDOS: One of the companies doing that is Fervo Energy. This summer, it started generating electricity for the first time at its geothermal pilot in Nevada, and it just broke ground on its next big project right here in southwest Utah. Now, these breakthroughs don't mean geothermal is suddenly as cheap as other types of clean energy. For now, federal analysis shows this type of geothermal costs around $181 per megawatt hour, while utility-scale solar cost just $25. But if future power grids want to get off fossil fuels completely, they'll need to keep the lights on when the sun isn't shining. Ben Serrurier of Fervo Energy says geothermal's potential to fill those gaps 24/7 makes it a valuable part of a carbon-free energy diet.

BEN SERRURIER: What we can do is sprinkle in a little bit of geothermal. You don't need all that much, and you can bring down the overall cost.

CONDOS: And he says the more federal incentives help geothermal projects get up and running, the more economical it'll become. Fervo expects the cost of geothermal to drop by about two-thirds in the next decade. But even as this new technology starts proving itself, there are more hurdles before it's powering your light bulbs.

JEREMY HARRELL: Our regulatory structure in this country was created in the '70s, when climate wasn't an urgent problem, right? And so now we need a different structure in place.

CONDOS: That's Jeremy Harrell with ClearPath, a D.C.-based research and advocacy group focused on clean energy. He says it's often harder to get permits to drill for underground heat than to drill for oil. In a climate crisis, he says that's not going to cut it. Now, geothermal can have some environmental impacts - from habitat loss to an increased risk of earthquakes. But Harrell says its effects pale in comparison to those from fossil fuels. The Department of Energy's long-term goal is to multiply domestic geothermal capacity nearly twenty-fivefold by 2050. But Harrell says if regulators don't speed up the permitting process, the U.S. will have a hard time tapping into geothermal's potential fast enough to curb global warming.

For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Beaver County, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Condos is High Plains Public Radio's western Kansas reporter. Based in Hays, he covers issues that shape rural communities across the Great Plains — from water and climate change to agriculture and immigration. His work reaches audiences across Kansas through the Kansas News Service, a statewide collaboration of public radio stations.