Co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy
Tim Latimer [00:00:03] Because if you look at what the world needs, carbon free electricity, reliable round the clock, geothermal can do that and it can do that today with an immense potential on a scale. And we need to start funding it like you like it and it deserves a seat at the table.
Bill Loveless [00:00:16] The practice of capturing steam bursting through the Earth’s surface to generate electricity has been around for a century. This is the traditional concept of geothermal energy. But thanks to research and development in both the private and public sectors, new forms of capturing subsurface heat have been developed for HVO energy and advanced geothermal. Startup has made headlines this year, with breakthroughs in drilling techniques inspired by those of oil and gas. After a successful 30 day pilot this summer known as Project Red Servo proved it can produce 24 seven carbon free energy in locations without natural geysers. So what caused these breakthroughs? And what role can geothermal play in the energy transition? This is Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. I’m Bill Loveless. Today on the show. Tim Latimer. Tim is the co-founder and CEO of Servo Energy. He started the company in 2017 with Jack NorBAC. After attending graduate school at Stanford University, where he studied geothermal energy. Before Stanford, Tim worked as a drilling engineer for BHP Billiton in the Permian and Eagle Ford Basins in Texas. He has also worked as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group Buyout of Technology and McClure Geo Mechanics. I talked with Tim about Project Red and the commitment for Furbo to supply Google with some around the clock power by the end of the year. We also discussed recent innovation in geothermal technology and scaling opportunities in the U.S.. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Tim Latimer. Welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange.
Tim Latimer [00:02:13] Excellent. I’m happy to be here.
Bill Loveless [00:02:15] Well, I’m happy to have you here as well. There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to advanced geothermal these days. Perhaps many of us need to catch up on this technology, one that’s often, I think, overlooked. But first, let’s start by hearing a little bit about yourself. You’re from a long line of Texans and someone who naturally took an interest in energy from when you were a boy.
Tim Latimer [00:02:40] That’s right. Proud. Proud to be an eighth generation Texan. That’s something that is a big part of my family and growing up and and and, you know, as a result, I have been sort of immersed in the energy industry through throughout my entire life. Also went to college at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. And so the combo of growing up in Texas and spending a lot of time in Houston and going to college in Oklahoma meant that, you know, energy has been an A through line really from from the time I was born.
Bill Loveless [00:03:13] And at Tulsa, you earned a degree in mechanical engineering. And like a good Texan and one who grew up in an oil and gas environment, you you look to get into that industry. But but it was a time when around 2008, as I recall, it was a time when we saw the dawn of the shale revolution, horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing. All of it was was pretty new for the United States. You were really on the cusp of that revolution at that time. And I’ve read where you said, quote, We were we knew the way the world was going before even the experts did.
Tim Latimer [00:03:55] Yeah, it’s it’s fascinating to to be you know, it’s interesting to think I think about information flow and where it and where it goes. And of course the innovators aren’t always right. There’s there’s a whole list of places where there was misplaced hype. But it was somewhat fascinating being in college at the University of Tulsa and in the late 2000s where all of our friends kept getting hired and to enter these independent oil and gas companies, you know, people really pioneering the shale revolution, like pioneers like Chesapeake and EOG and Devon Energy. And what was fascinating to us is we all saw everybody going into these careers and working day to day on these huge technology breakthroughs. And, you know, you have is a time period where a lot of the belief around oil and gas production in the United States was that it was going to continue to go down. You know, if you read the EIA reports from that era, they were still projecting that the United States would become a very significant LNG, you know, natural gas importer. And it was just very funny to to read these reports of that sort of decline of US oil and gas production and contrast it with the, you know, insane job offers that all of my classmates were getting. You know, they couldn’t hire people fast enough to get out to North Dakota and South Texas and Louisiana to develop these fields.
Bill Loveless [00:05:15] And you yourself that you went to work for BHP Billiton, worked on in the Permian and Eagle Ford basins, you were very much in the oil and gas business.
Tim Latimer [00:05:27] Yeah, yeah. My first job right out of college was to work as a drilling engineer. And so I started working in the Eagle Ford in South Texas. And that was a, you know, an exciting introduction to the technology as well, because what what I saw, you know, was a field rotation schedule because were actually working and living on the drilling rig. So I would work two weeks on, two weeks off. And what was fascinating to me to talk about the pace of technology change when I started there in 2012 was without fail. I’d go out and work my two week shift and then I’d go home for my two weeks off and then I’d come back out and there would always be some sort of new tool or piece of equipment or reconfiguration of the rig or the process, because that was just every single month There was something new and innovative out there. It was a very exciting time for new technology deployment. You know, of course, the big things that are like the shale revolution or stuff everybody knows about, it follows energy. It was horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing. But what you saw when you’re on the ground level there, it was a million little innovations that just drove this dramatic change in performance. And it was quite an exciting time to be working as an engineer.
Bill Loveless [00:06:29] It wasn’t long before you were seeing connections between oil and gas drilling and geothermal energy, and it prompted you to take a turn in your career.
Tim Latimer [00:06:38] Yeah. So actually, speaking of the Eagle Ford, one of the things that’s interesting about the Eagle Ford is that it’s relatively high temperature compared to a lot of the other onshore oil and gas basins. And so we thought that high temperature was giving us challenges and trying to join these wells. And so one of my first jobs at BHP was, you know, research ways to deal with high temperature drilling. And all of the literature that I could find on the topic came from geothermal energy. And at this point in my life, I’d never heard of geothermal energy before, but I was already starting to think a lot more deeply about climate change. And so I started reading everything I could. This report that really shifted my thinking on geothermal was the future of geothermal energy report that MIT produced in 2006, where it really talked about how if we could figure out how to get drilling costs down and get more flow out of out of wells, we could turn to geothermal and doing a vigorous resource that could be developed, you know, anywhere in the world. And a light bulb went off for me in terms of, you know, look at these technologies that I’m working on day to day, or we’ve gotten a lot faster and cheaper drilling in the last few years, even since 2006, when that report was written. And I saw a huge opportunity to bring together the technological innovations I was working on day to day in oil and gas with the promise of the geothermal sector and hopefully revolutionize geothermal production in the same way that oil and gas production in the US had been revolutionized.
Bill Loveless [00:08:06] And you pivoted at that point to Stanford University with that thought very much in mind, right? In fact, you know, I learned where you in the essay you wrote as part of your application. You stated quite bluntly that you were going to revolutionize geothermal by creating a company based on oil and gas drilling technology.
Tim Latimer [00:08:27] I wrote that application essay, actually. Interestingly enough, you know, when I’ve got the ninth chapter when I was working on on the rigs in West Texas that point in time. So I was looking at the rig while I was writing about this and writing my application essay and got it submitted. And and almost ten years ago was when I drafted that essay. And it’s it’s been quite a journey ever since.
Bill Loveless [00:08:48] Yeah, certainly. And of course Stanford you got your MBA there and me as well. Stanford I’ve learned is has quite a pro. Graham Energy, a thermal energy as well. You met a fellow there named Jack NorBAC, a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s geothermal research program. And and he went on, You guys became quite close and he became the co-founder, later the CTO, chief technology officer of your company, Fertile Energy.
Tim Latimer [00:09:16] Yes, it was it was a great time. That’s actually one of the things that got me excited about Stanford is I thought, well, I’m going to start a company to do geothermal, so I need to learn how to start a company and I need to learn more about geothermal. So Stanford turned out to be the perfect mix because they have great programs in both those disciplines. And so I began taking classes in the geothermal program, and Dr. Roland Horne has run the geothermal program at Stanford for decades. And Dr. Horn, along with our CTO and co founder, Dr. Jack NorBAC, and Dr. Mark McClure, another Ph.D. at Stanford, had really been looking at more of the computational modeling side of what I’d had an intuition about in a field where I thought, well, you know, if we’re doing having all this success drilling horizontally for oil and gas, why don’t we try drilling horizontally for geothermal? And that was where I came at it from a real field application lens. But what they’ve done is spend a good chunk of their early 20 tens actually doing the simulation and modeling to say to show if you develop these enhanced geothermal systems in a different way, including horizontal drilling, that the outcomes could be quite transformative compared to what the attempts on enhanced geothermal systems had been before. So it was quite a great pairing when when I met up with Jack and the rest of the research group in the Stanford Geothermal Program.
Bill Loveless [00:10:30] Yeah, quite an introduction for you into this, into this field. I’d like to back up a bit, Tim, and talk about geothermal historically, just to make sure we all understand what has taken place in this field over the over the decades. The U.S. leads the world in geothermal electricity generation and from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, we learned that in 2022, there were geothermal power plants in seven states, and they produced about 17,000,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. That’s only about half of 1% of total U.S. or U.S. utility scale electricity generation. First, explain how geothermal energy has been traditionally supplied for electricity.
Tim Latimer [00:11:19] Yeah, So the first geothermal power plant was actually developed over 100 years ago in Italy, and there was an insight there that there were some natural hot springs that led to steam flow out of the ground. And and so an engineer at the time decided, well, what if we put a turbine on top of the steam that’s coming out of the ground and could we generate electricity from that? And that’s how the first year thermal power plant came to be. Fast forward to today, and geothermal still works in a somewhat comparable way. All the thermal power is based off the same principle. So you locate areas that are geologically hot. You can move the heat out of that reservoir into the surface by flowing geothermal brine or scheme to the surface. And then you can capture that, that geothermal brine at the surface and use the energy from that he to spend a turbine and create electricity. And so that’s how geothermal works. And what the industry has done historically is going to these places that have just absolutely perfect in choice geology, places like Iceland, Kenya, Northern California, New Zealand, just to name a few big markets where you’ve got incredibly hot rock that actually has also a high capacity for for flow through the reservoir and drilled relatively shallow wells in these in these niche geologic locations and created electricity from it. So it’s a it’s a proven technology. It’s been around for a long time. But the challenge with geothermal has been that the number of locations in the world that meet that criteria, you know, shallow natural flow, very high temperature rock or relatively so it wasn’t really possible to expand geothermal, even though it has all the attributes. People look for an energy resource, you know, no carbon emissions works 24 seven land use footprint. It’s got all these great attributes. But historically it was just very limited to these perfect geologists.
Bill Loveless [00:13:16] I guess when they think of geothermal in the United States, they think of the geysers in California, which is one of the largest geothermal energy complexes in the world, I believe, right?
Tim Latimer [00:13:27] It is. It is the largest in the world, although they all carry a complex in Kenya, will probably pass it in a few years. But it’s because they’re developing very, very, very quickly there. But the geysers, you know, has been producing for decades and even to this day is as its own facility, produces, close to 5% of California’s electricity. So it’s it’s a very sizable facility that’s been a. A real workhorse of the renewable energy economy of California for decades.
Bill Loveless [00:13:58] Well, now advances in the oil and gas industry, particularly the drilling techniques that that you mentioned, those associated with fracking, are making their way into the geothermal industry. You sort of gave us a sense a moment ago of why that’s so. But help us understand why this application from oil and gas, from fracking can be so applicable when it comes to geothermal.
Tim Latimer [00:14:22] Yeah. So as I mentioned before, geothermal has a lot of the attributes you want from an energy technology, clean land use footprint 24 seven reliable. But attempts historically to expand beyond these really special hotspots had been unsuccessful. We’d learned a lot from a technical standpoint, but there weren’t a lot of commercial. Successes. And so really, there’s another category of geothermal that can be somewhat analogous to unconventional oil and gas, and it’s called enhanced geothermal systems. And this is the idea of, you know, can you make economic, geothermal energy production even at a place that’s not super shallow and doesn’t have a lot of natural flow? And the first tests of enhanced geothermal systems were funded by the Doe. Going back nearly 50 years ago, the Fin Hill experiment is what’s called a really exciting Doe project. That was a technical success in a lot of ways, and proving that you could go into lower permeability formations and use advanced drilling and well stimulation techniques to increase production. We learned a lot from it, but it never really met the hurdles of of what you would need to see to be commercially viable. So it was technically interesting, but not quite commercially viable. And that was sort of how the industry sat. Ever since that test, there’s been test to do enhanced geothermal systems around the world for, you know, dozens of them in the intervening 50 years since that original fan experiment. But by and large, when you really look at the attributes you need to have a successful opera, a successful geothermal project, whether it’s the flow rates you get out of the wells or the drilling cost to achieve them, you know, it had fallen short of the commercial hurdles needed to really scale.
Bill Loveless [00:16:10] Yeah. What was missing, Tim, In terms of the technology?
Tim Latimer [00:16:14] Yeah. Well, there’s, there’s several things there, you know, that we contrast our projects and not just Bravo, but projects that are being done to this day by the Department of Energy, principally through the Utah Forge Project in southwest Utah. That stands for the Field Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy. There’s been a great deal of effort to incentivize and test new drilling and well completion techniques. And the things that were missing were really, I would say twofold. One is that to get a little bit technical, all of the attempts to well, stimulation in geothermal previously had been mostly what we call a single zone attempt. So you’re trying to flow from one well, an injection well where you pump the cold water in to another well, a hot well where you produce the heated geothermal brine. And doing it through one flow zone in between those two wells. And it turns out you can’t really get the right flow rates you need when you only have ones out. And so one of the new things that’s exciting and unlocked by a lot of the drilling advancements is horizontal drilling. And so rather than a traditional vertical geothermal system, what we’re doing now in our projects is drilling horizontally. And so we drilled down in our case, about 9000ft and then horizontally, about 5000ft. And then we have technology that allows us to divide that horizontal well into as many as 100 different flow zones. So for the same depth of drilling that you’re doing before, rather than having a fluid go from one through one zone, you’re having to go through 100 zones. And so it’s just orders of magnitude more energy output from a single log. And you had before. And that’s relatively new.
Bill Loveless [00:17:51] Yeah. And how do those drilling depths compare with what you drill for in oil and gas?
Tim Latimer [00:17:57] Well, that’s sort of an interesting thing. That’s almost exactly when the drilling depths of modern horizontal oil and gas drilling depths. And so the that’s one of the insights we had, is that is that actually drilling technology in oil and gas had really gotten very advanced and doing these big, deep wells with long horizontal sections and that we could do that for geothermal And geothermal drilling is different from first off, the the most obvious difference is it’s much higher temperature. So even though I was drilling wells that we considered high temperature for oil and gas when I was working in the Eagle Ford a decade ago, that’s still colder than the coldest geothermal wells we we work on. And so that’s a big difference. The other difference is that geothermal wells, the areas where you find the elevated heat for geothermal, are often associated with harder rock types. Like granite is, is the typical formation that we do geothermal. And so it wasn’t as easy as just copy pasting and. Drilling program from oil and gas. The depths were comparable to wells, the comparable. But because the geology is harder and it’s hotter, we had to do a significant amount of R&D work at at Furbo and conjunction with the Department of Energy and the Utah Forge project and with a lot of your suppliers to be able to develop the right equipment so we could drill these similar wells, even though it’s in a much harder rock and much harder rock.
Bill Loveless [00:19:18] Yeah, it must have required further research and development in terms of the tools, the drilling bits and all the metallurgy that’s involved in this and the sort of drilling.
Tim Latimer [00:19:27] Yeah, absolutely. The drilling bits are new and different and that’s another you know, I spoke at the beginning about how there’s these couple of large new technological breakthroughs that led to success in oil and gas and then a million little things that you may not know about in the last year, the industry and in the industry. One of the ones I like to talk about a lot actually is the advent of the PDC, that Polycrystalline Diamond Compact Band, which is a different sort of drilling type, that again, there’s always a national lab through line here. The national labs, particularly Sandia National Lab and their drilling research program, did a lot of the foundational work throughout the 70s and 80s and 90s on developing the PDC pad, and it was still sort of in the research phase, I’d say, and not really take much use either in oil and gas until the 2000. But the PDC that to contrast it to traditional drilling, it’s what’s called a fixed cutter bit. So what you do is you’ve got a bit that has, you know, advanced metallurgy and a lot of strength, and then they actually make synthetic diamonds that they placed on the end of the belt to help grind the rock as you’re drilling. And this actually sort of superseded and replaced the traditional roller cone back, which had been around for a hundred years. It’s the thing that made Howard Hughes famous was was the invention of that bed almost 100 years ago. And that was the standard in oil and gas for a very, very long time. They actually had cones that rolled and crushed the rock rather than these diamond tipped bats that scraped the rock away. But because of a lot of advancements by Sandia National Labs in collaboration with private industry, that new kind of bit became very viable and commercial in the late 2000. So it was really one of the things that made shale work because it’s so much more faster than traditional bets. When we started, there was a lot of conventional wisdom that, sure, a PDC bet works and oil and gas, but you can’t use them and and geothermal because the granite so hard. But you know we worked with a lot of the best pet suppliers and and did a lot of engineering work to actually bring that technology to geothermal. And one of the reasons why our drilling results are so phenomenal compared to what was achievable in geothermal before is because of these new advancements and adapting things like the PDC back to work and our geothermal energy for the first time.
Bill Loveless [00:21:45] Yeah. Well, speaking of those those drilling advances that you’ve achieved there at FairVote, the company did record a milestone, a breakthrough in test results this past summer. Tell us about that.
Tim Latimer [00:21:59] Yeah. So obviously, you know, by the time we started the company in 2017, we were really excited about how this worked at the sort of desktop study level and using the advanced computational simulation software that we set up. We knew we could drill wells in a new way. We knew that it could produce meaningful amounts of energy, that that goes beyond what past attempts and enhanced geothermal systems had done. And we’re really excited about the prospect. But like with any technology, you can’t just simulate it for forever. We actually had to go out and do it. So we created kind of a broad partnership and began a couple of years ago doing a project that we call Project Rad, which is at a site in northern Nevada. And when I say a broad partnership, this has been fantastic. We’ve been able to get investment from some of the great venture capitalists that are active in the climate investing space place. People like breakthrough energy ventures and can grow adventurers or also we were great. It was great to get funding from the Department of Energy through programs like RPE and the Geothermal Technology Office. And of course we had a great development partner for this project as well, because Google has been a really big leader in corporate sustainability purchasing, and they launched a new target a few years ago on the new standard for corporate renewable procurement, which is a 24 seven carbon free energy standard. So this is not just thinking about meeting your power demands when you average it out over a year, but actually thinking about can you power all of your operations locally 24 seven every hour of the year with carbon free energy? And so Google came in and became an early partner with us on this project to sort of catalyze the investment and the project and share technology to get this off the ground. And so this group together, led by while but with a lot of really great stake. Shoulders began. We began a program where we first drilled America well to characterize and and monitor and and monitor the reservoir we were drilling into. And we installed another new innovation from the oil and gas sector called distributed fiber optic sensing in those wells. That allowed us to get really detailed characterization of the fluid flow and the subsurface, a new tool that had not been used much in geothermal before. So we drilled that well successfully, and then we drilled our horizontal injection well, not horizontal production well, and we finished the drilling of that late last year. And the announcement we made this summer was whenever we began the flow testing of those, we got really phenomenal results. And so these are results that to our knowledge, as we’ve explored the different research projects around enhanced geothermal systems and before we far exceeded sort of the state of the art in terms of flow rate and temperature, we were able to produce using these new horizontal drilling methods. And so that was the announcement we made in July, and we’ve been quite pleased about, you know, the success of this project and pushing forward what’s possible in geothermal.
Bill Loveless [00:25:00] Yeah. And Tim, as I understand it, it also gave an indication of the extent to which you could produce electricity. Right. And as a commercial quantity, you’re not doing it yet, obviously. But but what what what did you learn there?
Tim Latimer [00:25:13] Yes. So we were able to do a lot of testing. You know, we published this in a paper that you can find in our website. And what we showed was that we were able to achieve flow rates of around 60m/s, which was a really great design, and that at the temperatures we were producing, you can look at what does that mean from a geothermal production standpoint when you convert it into electricity and it’s the equivalent of about 3.5MW of electricity generated. This was very close to the target we set out for ourselves and a really strong confirmatory result for the kind of technology we’re moving forward with and what’s important for us. This was just the first project. It was a proof of concept. We wanted to prove that you could do this doublet while system injector and producer and make it work. But it’s really just the starting point for what we can do next. And so as we move forward, we’re driving better cost and performance through a lot of the same levers that we saw the oil and gas industry do over the last few decades. Just to give you an idea of that. The horizontal wells in our pilot project where the horizontal section was about 30 200ft. And as we move forward, we now know we can drill deeper and hotter because we have the arrest, the technology to do that. And we can also drill longer. So the wells we’re drilling now are 5000ft, so significantly longer than our pilot project. And what’s exciting for us at that standpoint is that that shows that that 3.5MW number, while still really exciting for us, is really just the start of where we are and continuing to expand on on this now proven technology. We can we can get to more than double the output on the next set of wells that we’re going to drill.
Bill Loveless [00:26:48] Yeah. And that 3.5 represented more electricity than any of the world’s 40 some enhanced geothermal systems have previously achieved. According to your according to your company.
Tim Latimer [00:27:01] Yes. Yes, that’s correct.
Bill Loveless [00:27:02] And you have a deal. The deal with Google, you provide, what, five megawatts of around the clock power for the company’s data center operations near Las Vegas. Is that that power is not flowing yet.
Tim Latimer [00:27:13] No, no, we’re still sort of because after the successful flow test results, we’ve kind of gone through the final commissioning and construction phase of that so that we’re still in progress, But we expect to finish that project very soon and we’ll be producing electrons that that will be tied into the Nevada grid and in a very short order. Know.
Bill Loveless [00:27:34] Then you hit another milestone. In September, you broke ground on a geothermal power project in southwest Utah. And the goal there is to bring 400MW online by 2028. Tell us about that project.
Tim Latimer [00:27:48] Yeah. So we are excited to be moving forward very quickly now that we’ve that we’ve proven, you know, have this technological breakthrough in geothermal. And the timing is is exactly right because, well, what we’re seeing on the power grids in the western United States, there’s a big portion decarbonization, which is very welcome. But we’re also seeing some struggles where there’s been events like, you know, in the summer of 2020, in California, for example, rolling blackouts due to electricity reliability issues. And of course, this is all coming at a time when we’re seeing an unprecedented increase in demand on the electric grid because of these other really promising clean energy technologies that we need to decarbonize, like electric vehicles, like heat pumps, like Electrolyzers, to produce hydrogen. And so we need a lot more electricity in the western U.S. than we did before. And importantly, we need a lot more reliable electricity than we did before. And that’s where geothermal power plays a key role. So what we’ve seen is, is things like the California Public Utility Commission carved out what they call a clean front power mandate that that created a mandate for. The utilities. And this is in a state to buy carbon free electricity that works round the clock geothermal. So we’ve seen a huge interest and new demand from corporate customers like Google Plus utilities looking about reliability. And so as a result, we’ve been able to contract a large amount of power very quickly. So we decided to move forward on our next project and we now upsized at the 400MW, which we’re excited about, and we selected the second Southwest Utah, in part because this Utah Porch project that I mentioned before, that the Doe is funded and they’ve tried multiple wells very close to our site here over the last few years that we’re able to prove. High temperatures, great geology, great drilling performance. So we looked at those results and we realized that the successes that the DOJ had had from an R&D standpoint be translated to commercial successes. So we broke ground on a project directly next door to Utah Forge and and it’s 400MW. And I think the exciting thing about our technology is that it’s a very modular and repeatable approach. And so there’s not a lot of risk in us going from 4MW to 400MW because going from 4 to 400MW just means drilling more wells. You know, we’re not redesigning the system, but just repeating that pattern that we’ve already seen great success with over and over and over again until we achieve that 400 megawatt target. So that plant is in construction right now. We will bring first electricity from that plant to the grid in 2026 and we’ll fully commission the 400MW by 2028.
Bill Loveless [00:30:23] Water is a big issue, right. And you talked before about traditional geothermal, where you’re at typically relying on water steam coming from deep in the ground. Now you need to pump liquids into the ground to make this technology work. How much water do you need and how big of a challenge is that?
Tim Latimer [00:30:44] Yeah. So just to back up a little bit to talk about water and geothermal. When you get the brine to the surface, there’s multiple different technologies for sort of converting that energy to electricity. So a lot of traditional geothermal plants are in the category of what we call steam dry steam plants or flash plants where they’re actually using the reservoir fluid itself, flashing at the steam and using that steam to produce a turbine. And that has an advantage of being a simple and straightforward system that’s relatively low cost, but it has a couple of disadvantages. One is that whatever is in that reservoir fluid then gets vented to the atmosphere. So sometimes you can have, you know, for example, carbon emissions or other emissions if they’re down in the geothermal reservoir, can be released with with with the fluid in that in that case. So in almost all cases, it’s much, much lower on an on a emission standpoint than the equivalent coal or natural gas. But there are some emissions there. The other thing is that then you use evaporative cooling, so you lose a lot of that fluid to the atmosphere. And so you see the reservoirs decline over time because of of lack of water. And unless you can source water from elsewhere, that becomes a big problem. So that’s sort of the older style geothermal technology. What Furbo is using is, is binary cycle technology. And these are quite a bit different than the flash turbines. So in contrast to bring it up the geothermal fluid and using it to power the turbine, what we actually do is bring out the hot geothermal brine and then we run it through a heat exchanger at the surface that heats up a different working fluid. And then we re-inject all that geothermal brine back down into the reservoir. So this is a technology that’s been around for a while. You know, one company, for example, or Matt, has been a pioneer of binary cycle power generation technology and geothermal for decades now. So it’s a very proven technology and it has a couple of big advantages. One, because you’re not flashing any fluid, there’s no emissions associated with it. And then two, water is a much lower issue as well because you can re-inject all that water back down into the reservoir. So while our system uses water, the vast majority of what we’re doing is just recirculating the same geothermal brine through the system over and over and over again. So it actually has a pretty minimal water water use for for the projects.
Bill Loveless [00:33:02] What about seismic activity? You know, we’ve read in the past, learned in the past about difficulties from in the oil and gas shale fields where the re injection of the of the waters that had been used in fracking can cause some seismic concerns. Many or small earthquakes that it’s happened in Oklahoma. I understand it’s even happened with some geothermal activity and in other countries other seismic risks associated with the work that Furbo is doing.
Tim Latimer [00:33:36] Yeah, so we take the seismic risk planning and do our projects from from day one. And so actually the Department of Energy has created a great protocol in the United States for geothermal project development called the Induced seismicity. Mitigation protocol. So what that means is assume we apply it for every one of our projects. So we screen the area for any areas that could be subject to critical faults or hazards that could that could be associated with seismic activity. We also look through our operational plan to to determine what kind of designs we’re using for these projects. And then importantly, we install a lot of local seismic monitoring. That’s a much more detailed seismic network than, you know, just sort of the general background seismic network that we that we used to observe. So we have the ability to measure in very fine detail any sort of seismic activity, whether associated with our projects. And and as part of this protocol, actually on our pilot project, we also formed a partnership with the US Geological Survey to install and monitor these seismic networks as well. And the reason we do that is because there’s a lot of people that I asked the same question that you just asked me there, where there are people that have seen that seismic activity in earthquakes, in oil and gas or with other geothermal projects and have concerns about it. You know, we think that using the Department of Energy’s induced seismicity mitigation protocol is is a very good way to achieve delivering projects safely and without without seismic risks that can cause hazards to people. We’re going to collect the data to make sure we proved that. So in and actually in that same paper that we have on our website, we recorded because with this upgraded monitoring network from the US Geological Survey, three years worth of seismic data at the site for every phase of the operation and showed that, you know, in no instances was there any seismic activity that triggered what we call our stoplight system, that since kind of an early warning on there issues. So that was a very positive result and we’re happy to publish that information. And there are certain things about the way we do geothermal and enhanced geothermal systems that are much different from the oil and gas industry that that change that. So as you noted, a lot of the seismic activity associated with oil and gas is actually because of disposal of the produced water that comes from oil and gas projects. And that leads to a situation where you’re injecting a large volume of fluid into one area that can actually change the stress state in the subsurface that can lead to some of these seismic risks. This is where it’s important, I think, to contrast what we’re doing differently with our projects, where principally we’re just recirculating that same fluid through. So we’re not leading to big changes in that reservoir over time. So it doesn’t introduce the same seismic hazard that disposal wells in the oil and gas industry do. So we weren’t surprised by that result. We were we were pleased to have the information and to be able to publish it. But that’s what we expect in our projects, that these can be done quite safely.
Bill Loveless [00:36:33] You mentioned the Department of Energy and Furbo has benefited from Dewey Bartley, as you mentioned, through the Advanced Research Projects Agency back in in 2022. But is there could always be more money right term? But is the when it comes to government research in this area? You know, I was I was digging into the numbers a little bit. And the amount of money that Dewey spends on geothermal research is pales in comparison to what it spends on other types of energy technology. You know, I think there was some $74 million for pilot projects and in comparison to hundreds of millions of dollars and we funds available to other technologies. Is it enough?
Tim Latimer [00:37:18] No, it’s absolutely not enough. And and it needs it needs to change because I think geothermal I mean, you started the podcast off by by mentioning it’s often overlooked and it’s often overlooked in so many areas. And this is one that’s, that’s really challenging, is that it’s difficult for us to compete with other energy technologies because of the amount of government funding that other energy technologies get. In contrast to two geothermal. I think what’s incredible is why the Department of Energy’s done with that. This small budget that’s been allocated to geothermal, you know, the Utah port project being just one example of many successes there. But, you know, it is something to to be a little funny about. When I read the original press release and Bill language came out about the $74 million for enhanced geothermal demonstrations and multiple reporters asked reach out to me to ask if it was a typo and they’d forgotten a 0 or 2, because in that same announcement we were talking about hydrogen and nuclear and carbon capture projects that all had multi-billion dollar funding announcements. And so it’s interesting. I think we’ve done more with less than any other energy technology. It’s starting to get recognized more, and I think that will translate into future higher appropriations for geothermal, because if you look at what the world needs, carbon free electricity, reliable around the clock, geothermal can do that and it can do that today with an immense potential on a scale. And we need to start funding it like like it deserves a seat at the table. And I think it’s incredible what we’ve been able to. Accomplish with very little support. In contrast to what? Other energy technologies get. And I think that’s starting to change now, though, because people are recognizing what a huge role geothermal could play in the future.
Bill Loveless [00:39:05] Where is there the most potential for these this new generation of geothermal electric power technology in the United States? And why is that so?
Tim Latimer [00:39:15] So as the technology cost curve comes down, we will be able to develop anywhere in the United States. But like any resource energy resource, we’re starting at the places with the best economics and most favorable resources first. And so for us, that means some of the some of the states in the Western United States. So geologically places like California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada have actually much higher temperatures at shallower depths than other places. So, you know, for our projects, for example, we can get down to temperatures that are 400°F and do so drilling down to only 8 or 9000ft. You’d have to drill much deeper if you went elsewhere. And so as a result, that’s the most economic place for us to start. And we’re concentrating a lot of our work in the next few years in those states because they’re great market. But the vision for geothermal is that as we continue to push drilling costs lower, then we can start going deeper and deeper and still having economic projects. So as we think about the long term, there’s hundreds of gigawatts of potential and just the United States alone and all the map, all that we have to do to get there is continue coming down the cost curve. What’s an already proven technology.
Bill Loveless [00:40:29] And you look abroad as well.
Tim Latimer [00:40:31] Absolutely. Yeah. There’s in the world today, the US only makes up about 20% of the global electricity supply. So the US has the largest market. But but it’s still a relatively small picture of the overall global potential. And there’s markets like Kenya, like Indonesia, like Turkey that are growing quickly and have enormous amounts of geothermal potential. So we’re excited about the opportunity, what’s going on in those markets and the opportunity to use our technology to accelerate development there as well.
Bill Loveless [00:41:02] 20 years from now, to what extent might the United States be relying on geothermal for electric power?
Tim Latimer [00:41:08] If you look at resource assessment that now is done where you’re talking about a resource for enhanced geothermal systems that is, you know, relatively shallow and the 4 to 5000 meter deep range and high temperature that can be measured in the hundreds of gigawatts. And so the way we think about this potential is that whenever you look at grid models around what does it take to decarbonize the grid? We know wind and solar are going to play a massive and probably majority role and the grids in the future. We also know from looking at results, whether it’s the Enron 100 study or Princeton’s net zero America work, that we need a complement to wind and solar to get to a fully decarbonized grid. And the sizing of that usually turns out to be we need something that’s around 10 to 20% of the energy mix that can be that backbone that works around the clock and works all the time. When we think about US electricity demand, when we think about the decarbonized grid of the future and we overlay that with where we see a few hundred gigawatts of potential for geothermal in the United States. That’s the role we see geothermal. We think we can be that backbone that provides up to 20% of U.S. electricity, max, that complements wind and solar and unlocks a fully decarbonized grid.
Bill Loveless [00:42:18] In your company. Are you hiring many former oil and gas drillers like yourself?
Tim Latimer [00:42:23] Absolutely. You know, we we did an assessment early this year, and we found that roughly 60% of the people at our company come from the oil and gas industry. So a lot of folks like me who have found the technology challenges and excitement of oil and gas quite interesting, but wanted to move their career in an area where they could have more of an impact on climate change. So that makes up a large number of our employees and we’re excited to have that as a as a resource to tap into skills from. So we also pull from the traditional renewable energy industry as well. So we’ve hired a lot of folks that know wind and solar development and are really trying to bring together the technological expertise of the oil and gas industry to develop these projects with the commercial and business expertise of wind and solar development to really accelerate this industry.
Bill Loveless [00:43:10] So to those who may say, well, you know, oil and gas jobs pay really well, some of these alternatives to cleaner energy forms of energy may not pay quite as well. That’s not necessarily the case. Is that what you’re saying?
Tim Latimer [00:43:24] I don’t think that’s the case. And I think that, you know, the exciting thing about renewable energy and in particular geothermal and energy is that it’s a very fast growing industry that has a long runway of growth ahead of it. And that creates incredibly compelling employment opportunities and often very high paying employment opportunities as well. So yeah, we’ve had, you know, struggle attracting talent from the oil and gas industry.
Bill Loveless [00:43:50] Well, yours is. An inspiring story about innovation and entrepreneurship. What advice would you have for budding entrepreneurs like you? Once were.
Tim Latimer [00:44:00] Get started. I think that’s the first thing. I was laughing and I was reading something this morning where I was at by where famous venture capitalists where most often failure mistakes of startups. And they said that number one was I was not starting them. And, you know, you’ll talk to people who do talk for years about an idea without taking action. And and and so I think number one is just to just to be excited and take the leap. I think the other thing that I would say to potentially budding entrepreneurs and innovators is that the world of financing and building companies that are going to make an impact on climate change is quite a bit different from the traditional technology venture capital model. That doesn’t mean venture capital won’t play a role, and it doesn’t mean that there’s not software companies that will make an impact on climate change. Both of those things are true. But in general, if we want to impact the physical world of climate change, you need to build things in the real world. And so you’ve got to think a lot more deeply about your fundraising strategy and your partnerships to do this. And so that’s where, you know, I think it’s great to pursue venture funding sources, but you also need to complement that with really interesting opportunities like the EU funded programs and other things. You know, we benefited tremendously early on from being a part of the active fellowship that allowed us to work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for the first two years as a business. And that’s the kind of thing you need to be thinking about if you’re going to be tackling a hardware tech intensive problem that’s a little bit different than the traditional software model.
Bill Loveless [00:45:31] Well, yours is an interesting story, and geothermal is a technology that I guess all of us are learning a whole lot more about these days. Tim Latimer, thanks for joining us on Columbia Energy Exchange.
Tim Latimer [00:45:43] Thank you so much for having me.
Bill Loveless [00:45:49] That’s it for this week’s episode of Columbia Energy Exchange. Thank you again, Tim Latimer. And thank you for listening. The show is brought to you by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. The show is hosted by Jason Bordoff and me, Bill Loveless. The show is produced by Erin Hartig from Latitude Studios. Additional support from Daniel, Prop, Lily Lee, Natalie Volk and Cully. Roy Campanella is our sound engineer. For more information about the show or the Center on Global Energy Policy, visit us online at Energy Policy. That columbia.edu or follow us on social media at Columbia you energy and you can rate the show on Apple of Spotify. You can also let us know what you think by leaving a review. If you really liked this episode, share it with a friend or a colleague. It helps us reach more listeners like yourself. We’ll be back next week with another conversation.
The practice of capturing steam bursting through the earth’s surface to generate electricity has been around for more than a century. This is the traditional concept of geothermal energy.
But thanks to research and development in both the private and public sectors, new forms of capturing subsurface heat have been developed. Fervo Energy, an advanced geothermal start-up, made headlines this year with breakthroughs in drilling techniques inspired by those of oil and gas. After a successful 30-day pilot this summer, known as Project Red, Fervo proved it can produce 24/7 carbon-free energy using enhanced geothermal systems.
So what led to these breakthroughs? And what role can geothermal play in the energy transition?
This week host Bill Loveless talks with Tim Latimer about innovation in geothermal technology and scaling opportunities in the U.S. Tim is the co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy. After studying geothermal energy in grad school at Stanford University, he started the company in 2017 with Jack Norbeck. Before Stanford, Tim worked as a drilling engineer for BHP Billiton in the Permian and Eagle Ford basins in Texas. He has also worked as a consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, Biota Technology, and McClure Geo-mechanics.
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