Jamie Beard: How can we tap into the vast power of geothermal energy? Geothermal energy is a clean, renewable, nearly limitless energy source. Technologist Jamie Beard wants us to use more of it — and to do that, she's recruiting experts from the fossil fuel industry.

How can we tap into the vast power of geothermal energy?

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On the show today - Repair, Repurpose, Reimagine. When you hear the term renewable energy, what do you think of? Maybe solar power, wind, big hydroelectric dams? But if you've ever swum in a hot spring or visited a geyser...

JAMIE BEARD: Oh, for me, I just sat under Mt. Rainier for a week, and that's a volcano.

ZOMORODI: ...Well, then you've seen another source of potential power - geothermal.

BEARD: It's a gigantic source of energy that emanates through the Earth. And parts of it actually escape the surface.

ZOMORODI: This is Jamie Beard.

BEARD: You have rock with pore space in it. You have water inside that pore space in the rock. And then you have a lot of heat close to the surface. And when you have all those conditions together...


BEARD: ...That is a gigantic resource.

ZOMORODI: And in areas that have these resources, the opportunity for cheap, renewable energy is huge. Thirty percent of Iceland's electricity is geothermal; Kenya - 38%. But Jamie says that for most of the world, geothermal power is...

BEARD: Nothing. Like, it's so small now that it's barely a blip on the radar.

ZOMORODI: Which is why she no longer practices environmental law but is instead working to grow the geothermal industry.

BEARD: Geothermal is beneath us anywhere and everywhere in the world. And the only difference between Iceland and right here in Boston, where I'm sitting, is the depth that you need to drill to get to the heat, right? In some places, you have to go deeper. It's not right at the surface. But that - it's still there. You know, that's what's really, really exciting about it to me.


BEARD: The core of the earth is 6,000 degrees Celsius. It's the same temperature as the surface of the sun. But it's not 94 million miles away. It is right here beneath our feet.

ZOMORODI: Jamie Beard continues from the TED stage.


BEARD: There are teams of innovators that are working on figuring out how to most efficiently and effectively tap this enormous heat source beneath us. But in order to do that, we've got to figure out how to mimic the conditions that occur in places like Iceland that make geothermal easy to tap and extract and harvest. And those conditions are hot rocks, pore space in the rocks and water filling those pores. Those conditions seem simple, but they actually occur naturally in very, very few places in the world.

But the past couple of decades, there have been really disruptive and breakthrough technological innovations that enable us to engineer the subsurface to mimic Mother Nature's geothermal. So technological innovations like directional drilling, where no longer we can just drill straight down, but instead we can actually turn and steer drill bits to reach very precise and specific locations in the subsurface miles underground. And we can also fracture rock now, which means that we can create pore space where pore space does not exist naturally.


BEARD: So if you take these innovations that I just listed and you put them all together, you end up enabling an entirely new breed of scalable geothermal concepts. Geothermal concepts can be done anywhere in the world.

ZOMORODI: OK. So let's talk more about how you actually tap this geothermal energy. Let's get a little technical. Can you explain one of them - EGS?

BEARD: Sure. So the first type of hot, dry rock system is engineered or enhanced geothermal systems. And in those, you drill a well, and then you fracture the rock. So it's - remember, this is dry. So there's no fluids down there. And it may not be porous enough, so you want to make more pores. And then you send a fluid down that well. And circulating that fluid through the rock, the fluid heats up. It comes - you produce it in a well at the surface, and you run a turbine to produce electricity. So you're actually running a power plant.

ZOMORODI: So it's basically the same as geothermal plants in Iceland or Kenya, just, like, much, much deeper under the ground.

BEARD: Right.

ZOMORODI: OK. But you said that there's another way to get at that energy that you're psyched about.

BEARD: Yeah. So the second concept that's really interesting is closed-loop systems. And closed loop is actually - it leans really heavy on the use of directional drilling techniques. And that's essentially the ability to turn your drill bit and to aim for a specific place underground that you want to go. And you don't need to use fractures in closed loops because they're closed, right? And so you have an underground radiator that you circulate a fluid through. And that fluid is produced at the surface and runs a power plant just like in EGS.


BEARD: These are not moonshots. We are talking about making very incremental changes to existing technologies with an eye on more hotter and deeper geothermal developments. There are teams in the field demonstrating these concepts - teams like Sage Geosystems, a team that I mentor.

This is a well in - get this - Texas. This is a Texas pasture where you would never suspect the enormous geothermal resources that lie below. And this well is an existing abandoned oil and gas well that they have repurposed for this geothermal demonstration.


BEARD: In the past 18 months, more geothermal startups have launched than in the past 10 years combined. If even one of these startups is successful at proving a scalable geothermal concept, we are literally off to the races in developing this massive, reliable 24/7 clean energy source anywhere in the world.

ZOMORODI: So if we've got the technology, what's holding us back from a geothermal power boom? Jamie says it's politics. When we come back, her proposal for bringing together the fossil fuel industry and environmentalists. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On today's episode - Repair, Repurpose, Reimagine. And we were just hearing from Jamie Beard, who describes herself as a geothermal instigator.

BEARD: The thing I love about geothermal is it's clean and renewable in that it's this naturally occurring energy source that is ubiquitous, near limitless.

ZOMORODI: Jamie believes that we are on the cusp of turning geothermal energy into a massive new source of alternative power.


BEARD: So how do we do that? It brings me to my proposition.

ZOMORODI: Here she is again on the TED stage.


BEARD: To scale geothermal, we need to efficiently, effectively and safely drill below the surface over and over and over and over again. And who does that now? The oil and gas industry does that now. The oil and gas industry is a global, specialized workforce of millions, backed by almost 200 years of breakthrough technological innovation, all aimed at producing energy from deep underground. You flip the switch and you have green drilling, and oil and gas keeps its current business model, the business model that keeps them firmly rooted in hydrocarbons now. They're doing what they know how to do, which is exploring for, drilling for and producing a subsurface energy asset.


ZOMORODI: So, Jamie, you went from being an activist who was against the fossil fuel industry to working with that industry and trying to get it to transition into geothermal. Why? That doesn't sound like a natural progression to make.

BEARD: I would have agreed with you when I was 18, 19, early 20s, vehemently. In fact, I started my career working in renewables like solar and wind. One thing that I did realize, though, over the past years is that, you know, if we want to go fast - and there is an enormous amount of climate urgency - we literally have a Ferrari in the driveway. You've got millions of highly skilled workers. You've got a ton of relevant technologies and a hundred years of know-how. You have an existing global footprint with spot-on core competencies in this area. Why not use that? That is a gigantic resource.

ZOMORODI: So when you talk to people who are in the oil and gas industry and you propose to them this idea of turning their teams and resources into geothermal power plants, what's their response?

BEARD: So one of the first individuals that I contacted was a former chief scientist at Shell named Lance Cook. And he was skeptical at first, and we had a lot of fights. And over a period of months, he came around and decided that he was excited enough about geothermal and the ability to reduce costs using oil and gas technologies and methodologies. Then he went and started a company. But now there are more than 25 teams that I'm working with now, all pursuing different concepts and types of projects in geothermal.

ZOMORODI: So I need to ask - fracking for fossil fuels is very divisive. A lot has been reported on the pollution that fracking rock for oil and gas can cause. My understanding is that fracking for geothermal would be far less dangerous. But do you think people are ever really going to believe that?

BEARD: If there is something that I lose sleep over, it's that. I mean, this is something that, technologically speaking, I'm not worried. Like, that is going to be solved fast. What I'm worried about here is the human resources problem. And it's a big one, right?


BEARD: How do you deal with the fact that we're talking about essentially here green fracking, right? Is green fracking going to be a thing? And will environmental groups and climate activists - of which I'm one, you know - accept? But geothermal is just too awesome to become this, like, political football. It's a cause that, like, every single one of us could get behind. But we need to make sure that we're doing the work in, you know, inclusion of voices, talking to one another, compromising, and that's hard. But why would we go - why would we start from scratch and rebuild industries, you know, or start - you know, start from scratch and build new industries that are going to take us 100 years to power the Earth that we don't have when we've already got one that we can just pivot toward geothermal?

ZOMORODI: That's Jamie Beard. She's the founder of the nonprofit Project InnerSpace. You can find her full talk at ted.com.

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