Geothermal Energy Installers in Texas
In February 2021, devastating winter storms pummeled Texas with snow, causing the state’s largest-ever energy infrastructure failure. As temperatures dropped below zero and millions of homes lost power, hundreds of people and animals froze to death or succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. The smell of rotting food filled the air as refrigerators stalled.
Now, with the memory of the tragedy fresh in their minds, many Texans condemn the state’s power grid and want something more reliable. Geothermal energy gives Texas a glimmer of hope.
In Hot Water: ERCOT’s Major Blunder
How did a single disaster cripple the Lone Star State? Unlike almost every state in the US, Texas has its own energy network. With the kind of swagger unique to a place that used to be its own country, Texas stubbornly refuses to join the federal power grid, clinging tightly to the Texas Interconnection as its last shred of independence.
As the first howls of desperation became a public outcry during the storm, ERCOT — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas — became a statewide scapegoat that represented everything wrong with oil. The company’s abysmal public response only dug the hole deeper.
Every frozen fire hydrant and withered field of blood oranges was ERCOT personified. So were the icicles poised above beds. And for every light that went dark, another person lost faith in the system.
Texans are flocking to renewable energy in droves. If ever there was a time to promote geothermal energy in Texas, it’s now.
How Is Geothermal Energy Generated?
Deep underground — or not so deep, depending on location — boiling water, steam or molten rock gives off searing heat generated by the Earth’s core. People can harness the heat to either directly warm their homes or generate electricity.
The US generates more geothermal energy than any other country, with California boasting the Geysers Geothermal Complex, the world’s largest geothermal plant. Most countries that use geothermal energy are situated on or near fault lines.
Geothermal power refers to generating electricity from geothermal energy. When most people talk about geothermal energy, this is what they’re referring to. There are three ways to generate geothermal power:
1. Dry Steam Power Plants
The oldest type of geothermal power plant, dry steam power stations harness steam piped directly from underground, and the vapor powers a turbine that drives a generator. This produces electricity.
2. Flash Steam Power Plants
Pipes extract liquid at temperatures higher than 360 degrees Fahrenheit. The fluid travels under high pressure to a low-pressure tank above ground, and the sudden pressure change causes some of the liquid to become steam. The steam turns a turbine which powers a generator. This is the most common type of geothermal power plant.
3. Binary Cycle Power Plants
It’s not always possible to find liquids hotter than 360 degrees Fahrenheit near Earth’s surface. That’s where binary cycle power plants come in. These geothermal energy stations can pass lower-temperature liquids through a heat exchanger with a secondary — also called binary — fluid.
The binary fluid has a lower boiling point than water, and the heat given off by the underground liquid causes it to evaporate. The steam then drives the turbines, powers the generators and creates electricity.
The Best Sites for Geothermal Energy in Texas
Abandoned and current oil and gas wells are promising locations for geothermal power plants. Fluid temperatures at the bottom of these wells can exceed 392 degrees Fahrenheit in East Texas and 356 degrees in the western part of the state. Running these hot liquids through binary power plants could generate electricity without interfering with fossil fuel production or further damaging the land.
Geothermal heating is another excellent option for commercial buildings, schools and greenhouses across Texas. Cotulla High School, for example, uses underground water for heating, as does Navarro Junior College. Former president George W. Bush’s ranch uses geothermal heat pumps to control indoor temperatures.
In Austin’s Whisper Valley neighborhood, engineers are constructing the world’s first large-scale geothermal network for powering a residential area. It will be the largest geothermal system ever created for a residential community and will power around 7,000 homes.
Engineers must drill a borehole in front of every house, but it doesn’t have to go far. Just 30-40 feet underground, the temperature is a balmy 72-74 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and pipes will pump water down there to warm it to room temperature. Electricity, much of which comes from rooftop solar panels, will power the whole network. It only uses 20% of the energy an HVAC system would.
Houses in the area will run an extra $10,000, but people are willing to pay. Plus, thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act’s geothermal tax credit, homeowners can recoup 26% of the system’s installation cost as a credit on their federal income tax. This incentive is a huge boon to the geothermal industry.
Geothermal energy doesn’t produce any greenhouse gases. It’s available virtually everywhere, doesn’t make much noise, requires very little upkeep and doesn’t require the sprawling space of a wind farm. Plus, it provides power continuously. Why isn’t everyone jumping on the geothermal bandwagon?
The Downsides of Geothermal Energy
There are a few hurdles to overcome, including:
There’s no way around it: Drilling is expensive. This is one of the biggest obstacles to widespread geothermal energy adoption in Texas. Plus, there’s no guarantee that drilling will even hit a geothermal source at a certain depth, meaning drillers either have to go deeper — which becomes exponentially more expensive — or cut their losses. That’s a hard sell for investors.
Although geothermal energy is technically available everywhere, it isn’t always easy to reach. The cost of drilling an extremely deep well can make it hard to get a good return on investment.
In some places, the only way to access geothermal hotspots is by fracking. The US Department of Energy delicately calls this operation an Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS), but it’s the same process that oil and gas companies use to extract deeper resources, which involves injecting water at high pressure under the earth. It’s expensive and can even cause earthquakes in some cases.
A geothermal system’s underground pipe loop section can last up to 50 years. However, the heat pumps only have a life span of 20-25 years. Replacing underground equipment is more time-consuming and complicated than swapping out solar panels or wind turbine blades.
Additionally, quartz and limestone can clog the pipes over time, leading to system failure.
Don’t Dismiss Geothermal Energy
Politically-backed oil and gas companies dominate the Texas energy industry. Additionally, the state is rapidly adopting wind and solar power.
Even a short drive through West Texas tells the story: The hills are silhouetted by forests of towering wind turbines. Entire pastures bloom with electric blue solar panels. In some places, there are more pumpjacks than people, their rusted metal frames bobbing up and down like grazing sheep.
So much of the land is already in use — it may be hard for a new energy industry to break into the business. But renewable geothermal energy can be cost-effective, accessible and make use of existing infrastructure. And if the winter storms taught Texas anything, it’s that it’s high time for a change.