Geothermal could revolutionize American energy. Will polarization threaten its rise?

A new form of zero-carbon, on-demand energy could help bring stability to the grid with support on both sides of the aisle — if the diverse coalition now backing it can hold together despite clashing over politics and climate action.

Geothermal energy, which taps the heat of the Earth for industrial purposes or to generate electricity, represents a happy medium between Republicans’ energy security demands and Democrats’ climate goals.

Republicans and the fossil fuel industry on the one hand and Democrats, climate advocates and the renewables industry on the other support geothermal energy for different reasons. And while each camp’s reasons can support the other’s, they also point to differences that may threaten to hinder the technology’s timely takeoff.

Geothermal energy appeals to climate advocates because it produces none of the planet-warming carbon emissions fossil fuels do. It’s also a natural means of transitioning to clean energy for the oil and gas industry because it’s based on drilling wells to reach subterranean heat. And the carbon-free power it provides is consistent, which complements the more variable output from wind and solar.

Many climate advocates are wary of geothermal energy’s dependence on the same technology and financing used in the oil and gas industry, however. This association concerns those cautious about revitalizing a sector known for its role in climate denial.

Geothermal also faces a difficult path to commercial viability. And while it has begun to attract significant investment from oil companies and the Biden administration, political and ideological divisions are fueling tensions between its supporters.

Some experts are confident that geothermal’s appeal will be sufficient to weather these differences.

But Jamie Beard, the head of Project InnerSpace, a nonprofit that aims to make geothermal adoption “exponential” by 2030, told The Hill it’s urgent for the camps to learn how to work together — particularly with elections coming up in November.

“If we politicize geothermal, we kill it in a change of administration,” said Beard.

She said the industry must do “some really fast, really hard work to figure out how to agree on a path — so geothermal doesn’t get stuck in lawsuits and friction and fail to launch, and we, you know, burn up the planet.”

The Biden administration Department of Energy has recognized both geothermal energy’s potential and the price of helping it reach those heights.

Last month, a federal report projected that with the support of $25 billion of public and private investment over the next five years, geothermal energy could contribute a minimum of 90 gigawatts to the grid by midcentury — with 300 gigawatts being a more likely number.

That’s enough to power the equivalent of 68 million to 225 million homes — and because geothermal heat is available across most of the Western U.S., boosters argue even the higher figure is likely a significant underestimate of what’s possible.

However, that same report noted that for all its promise, geothermal energy faces a steep climb to profitability and broad uptake.

These headwinds come from a combination of competition from more mature industries, whether in fossil fuels like gas or renewables like wind and solar. While oil, gas, wind and solar all managed to grab major federal investment in the Inflation Reduction Act, while geothermal was largely excluded.

Other challenges include permitting delays, grid connection issues for new projects and controversies over fracking in enhanced geothermal systems.

Finally, there is the potential for community or environmental opposition, particularly over concerns like groundwater depletion — because the most promising U.S. geothermal sites tend to be in the dry West — and human-induced earthquakes, like the magnitude 5.5 one a South Korean geothermal project set off in 2017.

Some projects have already faced such opposition: For example, Burning Man festival organizers, conservation groups and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe sued the developers of a geothermal energy project in 2023, The New York Times reported.

“It’s kind of a NIMBY thing, but so much more,” one of the Burning Man co-founders told the Times about the lawsuit, which was concerned with the possibility that geothermal development would degrade local springs. “It’s not just ‘not in my backyard,’ but don’t ruin my backyard.”

Other projects from major fossil fuel companies have raised concerns over “greenwashing,” or attempts to make corporate practices appear more sustainable and environmentally friendly than they actually are.

The oil and gas industry, whose chosen path to “decarbonization” tends to focus on cleaning up the carbon emitted by its own operations while continuing to pump significant amounts of fossil fuels to be burned elsewhere, has frequently faced greenwashing accusations.

But Beard argues that for geothermal to grow at the scale and speed it would need to supply a significant portion of the grid by midcentury, oil and gas need to be enthusiastic participants — which she contends creates an urgent need for the climate and clean power movement to allow them the space to “not be a villain.

“Let’s give them a redemption arc, let’s let them lead the future of this thing, let’s let them scale this,” she added.

The stigma climate advocates associate with the fossil fuel industry remains a significant hurdle for any collaboration — a liability industry figures have acknowledged.

“The elephant in the room is that people don’t like us,” Matt Foder, senior vice president of innovation and new energy at oil company Weatherford International, acknowledged during one of Beard’s convenings at Halliburton headquarters.

“We intend to be part of the solution, we’re not bad guys, we live on this planet, we have kids that are going to live here as well — we want to be a responsible part of the solution, we have the workforce to deploy this technology at scale,” he said.

Given all that, Foder asked, “How do we convey that message in a way that isn’t viewed as greenwashing?”

Karine Kleinhaus, the head of sustainable finance for the Environmental Defense Fund, acknowledged the difficulty. “It’s not the easiest path to walk. It’s hard for environmental groups to find a path with oil and gas, and it’s hard for oil and gas to find a path with environmental groups,” she said at the Halliburton event.

“But when a company is truly transforming, that should be evident in the hard numbers.”

To Beard, that exchange between Foder and Kleinhaus — difficult and tense, but ultimately productive — was a small bright spot in the generally dismal picture of collaboration between oil and gas and the climate movement.

In Beard’s work, she often moves between climate advocacy and fossil fuel spaces to try to build consensus between the two camps to back geothermal. Last year, Project InnerSpace was one of three organizations to receive a combined $165 million grant from the Department of Energy to help transfer technology from the oil and gas sector into geothermal.

It has been rough going. When it comes to trying to build coalitions between the environmental movement and the fossil fuel industry, Beard said, “almost nothing works.”

She believes a large part of the problem is cultural: The two groups have different values and effectively speak different languages.

John Redfern, founder and CEO of Canada-based geothermal technology company Eavor, echoed Beard’s view.

Redfern said that when he and his co-founders set up Eavor, which uses a nonfracking form of advanced geothermal to create what it bills as vast underground radiators, “I gotta admit, we were a little naive. We started off thinking, ‘This is going to be great. The drilling people are going to love us. The oil and gas, the environmentalists are going to love us.’

“And at first blush, most of them just hated us. The environmental guys will see what looks like a drilling rig and say, ‘You can’t fool me.’ And vice versa: the oil and gas guys go ‘That’ll never work.'”

With an election looming, Beard also said she fears the Biden administration will claim credit for the geothermal renaissance that largely happened without its help and thereby paint a target on an otherwise bipartisan industry.

But some experts argue that the simple fact that there is so much demand for geothermal — and so much economic opportunity — helps mitigate the danger of political polarization.

“I don’t know if polarization is a real problem, or a problem people are saying will develop because ‘You have two sides that don’t get along,'” said Dennis Wamsted, who studies the energy transition for the nonprofit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

While it’s “definitely true” that a cultural division exists, Wamsted said, “we try to focus on the business case. And the business case for geothermal is just getting stronger and stronger.”

The fact that it is a clean, “essentially 24-hour” power source makes it very attractive to progressive utilities and, in particular, technology companies like Meta and Google, which combine ambitious climate commitments and ravenous demand for electricity to run their data centers, he said.

“So from a business case, I think you can have a very strong argument here,” Wamsted said. “And I think business cases tend to win out at the end of the day.”

For geothermal to have the best shot, however, Beard argued it needs to remain bipartisan.

That means, for example, government support should come from agencies with strong conservative support — like the Export Import Bank, the Office of Fossil Carbon Management and the Department of Defense — as much as ones with more liberal support, like the Department of Energy, she said.

She said progressives should hold the fossil fuel industry accountable without shutting it out of an emerging sector where it can play a transformative role.

“You have to applaud the good and scream about the bad,” she added.

“If oil and gas can build a business model on something they already know how to do, but it’s for clean energy, the world has won, right? Take the day off. Because that is exactly the outcome we need.”

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.