When an industry needs billions, a million doesn't help: Why DECC will delay UK geothermal power by doling out micro-finance

The UK government has announced a further £1m of grants available for companies involved in research into ‘deep geothermal’ energy. Five kilometres below the surface temperatures can be as high as 200 degrees or more. This heat can be extracted by drilling multiple holes, fracturing the deep rocks, pumping liquids into the wells and forcing hot water to the surface. The heat in the water can be used to generate electricity and for district heating systems. Deep geothermal will almost certainly work and provide near year-round electricity. The problem is that we still need hundreds of millions, and probably billions, of pounds to solve the major technical challenges facing the industry. £1m is an absurdly small amount of money and will achieve nothing. Compare this to the nearly $700m committed by the US Department of energy last year or even the $44m provided by the Australian government. When will the UK government learn that drip feeding money into early stage renewable technologies is almost certainly counter-productive? Cornwall has attractive rock formations for the extraction of heat from deep rocks. Several companies, such as EGS and Geothermal Engineering, have outline proposals for power stations that will use the heat for conversion into electricity. EGS is seeking to develop a 4 MW power station (about the output of two large turbines when the wind is blowing hard) at the Eden Project at a cost of about £20m. Geothermal Engineering has just got planning permission for a site near Redruth.  1970s research into the granite of England’s southwest showed substantial potential. As with almost all other government R+D into non-fossil fuel energy, public funding was ended abruptly as it became clear that getting deep geothermal to the point where it could reliably generate electricity would absorb large amounts of cash.

Interest in geothermal is quickening around the world with Google.org a major player. (Google.org is the charitable foundation associated with the search engine company).  Google.org alone has invested over $15m into several geothermal technology companies. The challenges these companies face are very substantial. They need to be able to drill multiple very deep holes (think Deepwater Horizon), find ways of fracturing the rock at this depth so that a large area becomes porous, pump water down to the bottom of the well, collect the superheated water and get it to the surface without losing temperature and then convert the resulting relatively cool steam into power. (200 degrees is a far lower temperature than would normally be used in a power plant).  None of these individual technical problems are insuperable but taken together they will need a huge R+D effort to overcome.

The US Department of Energy has a sense of the scale of the task. Last year it announced funding for about 120 separate projects costing $338m, backed up with £350m matched private and non-federal cash. The typical individual project will have funds of over $5m. One demonstration at Bend, Oregon will use about $45m of funding, including over $20m from the federal government. This is the scale of the money needed to get anywhere in this new industry. The UK’s £1m will not even pay to drill a single deep hole below Cornwall’s surface.

In fact, I suggest that the problem is even worse than this. Drip feeding absurdly small sums of money into an industry actually delays R+D. The band of hardy engineers with knowledge of the technology spend all their time competing for dollops of cash in order to survive the next wages bill. Actual R+D is minimal with all energy devoted to grant applications and dealing with government officials anxious to monitor the success of the project. It would be far better if these determined people went to the States or Australia and worked for a properly funded company there. They can then bring the results of their work back should they ever wish to return. When an industry needs billions, a million doesn’t actually help.