A Canadian startup is tapping the holy grail of geothermal power.
No matter the scale of success, today’s trifecta of wind, solar and lithium-ion battery storage will require clean, baseload power. In many parts of the world, hydro and nuclear power have been part of the move from fossil fuels.
Relying on some of these systems in a precariously changing climate can be far from ideal. In recent years, extreme drought has forced dams offline or to run at lowered capacity in South America, Africa, Asia and even in the U.S. Coupled with the nuclear industry’s dwindling momentum, rising costs, the great need for water for cooling and perpetual construction delays, nuclear power, in particular, is being challenged by climate disruption.
Amidst such a conundrum, what other energy solutions are available?
As wealthy nations race to throw billions at the ITER fission nuclear reactor, a long-promised utopia considered “the most complicated piece of engineering anybody has ever attempted, ever,” a much simpler answer could be right beneath our feet. The earth’s core is an organic fission reactor, already generating unlimited amounts of energy.
While efforts to harness subterranean power pale in comparison with the success of sun, wind and water, one Canadian startup has recently struck the potential goldmine of geothermal energy. Eavor Technologies, a Calgary-based venture, has designed a new type of geothermal power plant suited for just about any condition in the world.
The Eavor Loop is an elegantly simple design: A circular piping system that harnesses heat from the earth and contains it much like a battery system. This makes the design compatible with the intermittent nature of other renewables unlike traditional geothermal and nuclear plants, which do not have such flexibility.
Geothermal energy remains a fractional niche in the global energy mix due to traditionally limited applications in tectonic regions such as Iceland, Kenya, California, and the Philippines as well as the incredible costs associated with drilling.
Most recently, the sector has trended towards enhanced geothermal systems (aka “EGS” or “green fracking”) whose drilling process has been linked to earthquakes, facing regulatory and safety barriers globally. But the Eavor Loop requires no seismic interference in the earth’s mantle. This could position the technology as a leading solution in a largely untapped energy source.
The firm has grown quickly since starting in 2018, raising its first fund of investment above $100 million and attracting industry stalwarts like the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Michael Liebreich, to chair its advisory board.
For Eavor, more heat means more energy and faster returns.
With its Canadian pilot project successfully off the ground, Eavor is tapping into global markets. As Germany begins decommissioning its nuclear and coal fleet, the nation has mandated incentives for geothermal firms like Eavor to generate sustainable, baseload power. Construction on the firm’s first German project in Bavaria is set to begin in 2022.
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Although the Eavor Loop can technically produce energy in all parts of the world, its cheapest unsubsidized locations will be “in direct heat-use markets and regions with higher heat gradients such as the Western U.S.,” Neil Ethier, Eavor’s North American Director of Business said.
After investing in R&D to drive down the cost of drilling as well as looking to access greater geothermal depths, the company is now preparing for growth. “The deeper you go, the hotter it gets,” says Ethier. For Eavor, more heat means more energy and faster returns.
Scaling up Eavor Technologies will require expertise from an unexpected ally: Fossil fuel workers. Ethier explains that approximately 95% of the company’s staff –– him included –– are former oil and gas engineers who have found a second career pioneering geothermal energy.
Ensuring a just transition for fossil fuel workers has been easier said than done. On the Presidential campaign trail, President Biden actually told a room of middle-aged coal workers to “learn to code!” Eavor not only provides good quality jobs to former fossil fuel workers, but its acceleration is dependent on the “know-how” unique to oil and gas engineers.
As a result, BP has become one of Eavor’s earliest equity investors, describing Eavor’s potential as “complementary to their growing wind and solar portfolios.”
Today, researchers are pondering whether transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy could create new versions of old geopolitical power dynamics. For example, nearly three-quarters of the world’s solar panels are produced in China with the nation dominating rare earth resources, supply chains and subsequent intellectual property categories, causing disputes and deliberations for the World Trade Organization to resolve.
But Eavor’s simple design could challenge such trends. Their system is devoid of any precious metals or parts needed in complex, specialized manufacturing. Building an Eavor Loop system requires only cement and steel which could both feasibly be sourced close to the site of construction.
If the design takes off, Eavor’s system might fulfill a sweet spot of today’s energy trilemma: Balancing the need for clean energy, energy independence and resilience in a climate-changed world.