Secretary of Energy touts Utah geothermal project and sees green path to US energy independence

Granholm says the Biden administration is not giving up fossil fuels too soon, as evidenced by record US oil production.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Palo, facility district manager at the University of Utah, left, gives a tour of Gardner Commons geothermal power generation Wednesday, February 8, 2023. US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, center right, was joined by Joe Moore, principal investigator at the Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, and Lt. gov. Deidre Henderson as they tour the only building on campus that uses the earth solely for heating and cooling through geothermal energy.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

The Biden administration is moving quickly to move the nation away from climate-damaging fossil fuels, but it is not moving too quickly, US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said.

Granholm was in Utah on Wednesday as part of a post-State of the Union tour to promote the president’s clean energy agenda. The plan provides major incentives for industry and consumers to switch from oil, gas and coal to new technologies.

In his State of the Union address, Biden addressed his energy agenda but acknowledged, “We’re going to need oil and gas for at least another decade and beyond.”

“It’s a transition. It’s not an on/off switch,” Granholm said at a press conference at the University of Utah. “We have to make sure that people have power.”

To those who say the government is abandoning oil and gas before cleaner alternatives are in place, Granholm noted that the nation has produced record amounts of oil and gas over the past year. Oil production is at 12.2 million barrels per day, higher than ever.

Beyond combating climate change, Granholm sees the energy transition as an opportunity to escape the financial and political vulnerability created by dependence on commodities such as oil and gas, the price of which is influenced by the decisions of foreign actors such as Russia and Saudi Arabia. “The benefit of doing this is that we can be energy independent and not have to rely on countries whose values ​​we don’t share.”

Granholm chose Utah for this visit to encourage government investment in geothermal energy. Utah FORGE, the DOE’s largest and most advanced laboratory for so-called “enhanced” geothermal energy, is located just outside of Milford. Joseph Moore, director of the US Energy and Geoscience Institute, which oversees Utah FORGE, accompanied her on her visit.

Geothermal energy has been harnessed for more than a century but has been limited to a few places where reservoirs such as hot springs can be tapped. Advanced geothermal energy involves drilling more than a mile deep into hot rock to bring the heat to the surface.

At the Utah FORGE site near Milford, University of Utah scientists have drilled a deep well and used fracking techniques used in the oil and gas industry to create fractures in the hot rock. Later this year they will repeat the process with a second adjacent well. The plan is to create enough cracks to allow water to flow from one well to another. Cold water can then be pumped from one well, while hot water – hot enough to power a power plant – can be taken from the second well.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, center, listens to Lt. gov. Deidre Henderson during a tour of the geothermal-powered Gardner Commons at the University of Utah on Wednesday February 8, 2023. Granholm is in Salt Lake City to discuss the Biden administration’s clean energy agenda at a post-State-of-the-Union tour.

Granholm announced that DOE is committing an additional $74 million for enhanced geothermal energy. This is in addition to the $94 million DOE previously committed to Utah FORGE. For the next $74 million, the DOE hopes to identify other sites for potential geothermal projects. She said this could include another Utah site, but Utah FORGE or any other group must compete with other researchers in a peer-reviewed process.

The DOE believes the nation could source up to 90 gigawatts of continuous electricity from geothermal energy, which would be about 8% of the nation’s current electrical capacity. The fact that it’s continuous means it can be clean “baseload” energy to power the grid when intermittent renewables like solar and wind aren’t producing energy.

Granholm also toured the geothermal facility at the US Gardner Commons building. Completed in 2018, Gardner Commons is fully energy self-sufficient. To do this, the university drilled 150 wells to a depth of 100 meters under a football stadium near the building

Unlike enhanced geothermal energy, which drills to much shallower, hotter depths, the water extracted from the U. wells is not hot enough to generate electricity from a power plant. But it can be pulled inside the building to heat it in winter and cool it in summer.

U. Facilities Manager John Palo told Granholm that U. has the capacity to add more buildings using the same system.

Tim Fitzpatrick is a renewable energy reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains overall control of editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power. Secretary of Energy touts Utah geothermal project and sees green path to US energy independence

Justin Scacco

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