Fervo Energy's 3.5-megawatt enhanced geothermal plant in Nevada. (Google/Fervo)
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.”
Fervo uses horizontal drilling techniques to tap the earth's heat. (Fervo)
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.