In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by Carlos Araque, CEO and Co-founder of Quaise. Carlos discusses geothermal energy as the only renewable energy source capable of fulfilling the future energy demands of the human species with the greatest efficiency. He dives into the structure and operation of geothermal energy technology, the methods, challenges, and approaches.
According to Carlos, it takes approximately twenty to twenty-five tera-watts of energy to power civilization as we know it today. Given that number doubles every twenty-five years, in 2050, approximately forty to fifty tera-watts will be required to power the Earth’s civilization. Hence, there is a need for a massively scalable and sustainable energy source.
In comparison to other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, geothermal delivers a reliable source of energy that can scale. Carlos explains that unlike wind or solar energy, the resource for geothermal energy is constantly accessible. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source that will persist till the sun destroys the Earth in roughly five billion years. The Earth’s heated reservoirs naturally refill, making geothermal energy both renewable and sustainable.
Carlos is a professional engineer with experience in technology transfer, product development, and venture capital. He has vast expertise in developing, directing, and funding high-performing interdisciplinary teams to commercialize breakthrough inventions from university and corporate laboratories. Carlos was introduced to the work of Dr. Paul Woskov of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center on disruptive millimeter wave drilling technology for deep geothermal heat access during his tenure at The Engine, and created Quaise to seek commercialization of the technology at scale.
If you want to learn more about The Future of Geothermal Energy Generation, check out the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 10:19 – 17:30 – The need for a massively scalable energy source – Wind and solar land intensity per unit is far more than fossil fuel – which is not a problem for new gigawatts but becomes a significant issue for terawatts. Material requirements are also an issue at the terawatt scale, and unlike geothermal generation, the labor intensity required is less than it will necessitate for other energy sources.
- 18:09 – 20:00 – Beginners guide to geothermal energy – Scientists have determined that the temperature of the earth’s deep core is around 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit (°F), which is as hot as the surface of the sun. Because heat is constantly produced within the ground, geothermal energy is a renewable energy source. In Kenya and Iceland, geothermal heat is already used to generate energy for bathing, heating houses, and producing electricity.
- 31:00 – 35:00 – Designing geothermal around the resources available today – Geothermal energy generation has the potential to scale easily, and to boost the likelihood of success, its operations can begin by combining the best methods from the oil and gas resources and fusion sectors.
- Oil and gas industry – direct circulation of gas to remove materials
- Fusion industry – transferring electromagnetic substance over long distance
- Power plants: Geothermal fits nicely into the already existing power plants for fossil fuels – and replacing the boiler of the fossil fuels with the geothermal heat, this will be a good place to start to scale. And for places that need a new power plant, the infrastructural frameworks around regulations, workforce, resources, and supply chains are already in place.
- 37:49 – 42:00 – Challenges and approaches towards a cost-effective geothermal energy generation:
- Drilling is expensive, and lowering the cost to $1,000 per meter, regardless of depth, will be a significant achievement.
- The cost of building a power generation plant is also capital intensive, and by repurposing an already existing power plant, some initial expense may be avoided.
- 46:14 – 48:50 – Geothermal energy provides energy independence for everybody – You have autonomy on your energy source as long as you control your region. There are no incoming shipments of fuel, garbage, or external resources. In this manner, the entity is totally under your control. So, once the infrastructure is built, it truly creates a world that is significantly different from the one we have now.
Dylan Garret: Welcome to another exciting episode of Hardware to Save a Planet. I’m really happy today to get to sit down with Carlos Araque, CEO of Quaise Energy. We’ll be talking about tapping into geothermal energy, which theoretically, has sufficient scale to be a full replacement of fossil fuels, but really hasn’t gotten much attention relative to some other renewables.
I’m excited to learn from Carlos, why that is and why we should start paying attention now. I’m going to let him introduce himself. Before I do that, I will say that from what I’ve learned about Carlos so far, is that he is exactly the kind of person giving me hope about the future of our planet. He has that rare combination, an aspirational vision for making the world a better place, and the technical chops from his time at MIT. As an engineer in the oil and gas industry, to lead a team through all the steps to realize that vision. Welcome, Carlos, thank you for joining us.
Carlos Araque: Thank you, Dylan. That was an incredible introduction. Thank you very much for that. I’m flattered. Glad to be here. Glad to tell you about geothermal. I’m glad to share my views on why you need to do these things. These things are very hard, but we need to do them as a species, and now is the time to do them.
Dylan: Awesome. Before we get into Quaise, I was hoping to learn a little bit more about your journey to climate tech personally. I know you were born in Columbia and then studied mechanical engineering at MIT. Is there anything from that pre-MIT period of your life that inspired you down the path you’re on now?
Carlos: I think so, but you never connected dots going forward. You always connected dots going backward. When I look back at my time in Columbia, indeed, I was born in and interestingly, when I think of my own carbon footprint in my upbringing, it’s very low. It’s almost zero now, is that well, a lot of our energy in that area of Columbia, where I’m from, actually comes from hydroelectric, a massive hydroelectric power plant. We had a solar thermal on the roof of our apartment. It was pretty standard. Our hot water was always coming from the sun.
I think all of those things connect backwards, but not forward. None of that brought me to where I am today, but engineering and my passion for engineering and building things is what brought me to where I am today. I left Columbia at the age of 19 to study engineering at MIT. I went there as an undergrad to do mechanical engineering. I also did a master’s and then I took off to work in the oil and gas industry. I work in Houston, Norway, and England, mostly in the technology side of oil and gas, A company. Less focused on the actual operation of oil fields and more focused on the technologies that it takes to make oil and gas possible.
Anything from exploration to find the oil, to drilling, to get access to the oil, to production, to get it outta the ground, to processing, to get it into the refinery. There’s a ton of technology in that space. I held a 15-year career with them, always very keen on engineering. I’m a mechanical engineer, but, of course, you have to learn many, many things. After a while, you become a little bit of an electrical engineer, a little bit of a physicist, a little bit of a mathematician, whatever it takes to really understand what it takes to bring together all of these disciplines and move things forward. Now, and nothing moves by itself.
You need big teams, multiple expertise, but you need to be able to master a little bit of everything too, a little together. That was my journey into engineering, into energy waste is something that happens afterwards. When I decided, almost at 40 years old, that the energy transition is the biggest challenge and opportunity over a generation, maybe of many generations. That critical thinking led me to start seeking a way out of oil and gas, and seeking my way into something as big as oil and gas to repair civilization.
Dylan: I feel like I’ve met a number of people moving from oil and gas to developing new climate technologies or renewable space. Do you see that as well? Is that a trend? Is there this brain drain from oil and gas renewables, or if I just happened on a few examples?
Carlos: I do see it. I think when I ask myself, “Why is that?” I think oil and gas represents number one, a very large industry, one of the largest in humanity. Number two, a very complicated industry. We take oil and gas for granted, but it takes engineering miracles to make it possible. There’s a lot of very capable and competent people at all levels to make oil and gas possible. Sure enough, as you think about the future of our planet, the future of our species, the pressures brought about by climate, you have to realize that you have to roll up your sleeves and do something about this. It’s not surprising to me that many people from oil and gas, for the reasons I mentioned, find their way to wanting to do something for energy transition.
Dylan: I’m really curious, of all the renewable energy sources. How did you settle on geothermal?
Carlos: A little bit opportunistically and a little bit through using quantitative thinking, a very quantitative thought process. Let’s talk about the first part. First, when I left oil and gas, I thought that I was convinced, and I still am convinced that we didn’t have the solutions to make energy transition possible as a species. Wind solar batteries that play a role. The current renewables will play a role, but we fundamentally, don’t have enough to make it happen.
I was questioning myself, “What does it take to push an agenda? Which includes a significant technological component outside of a large corporation?” Because when I look around, no large corporation is actually working on those technologies that I thought could make it possible. I narrow down on venture capital. I figure venture capital, especially the tough tech or hard technology venture capital is the only pool of capital aside from brands and government programs that would actually make something like this possible.
It’s the only place where you can capitalize a company large enough to deploy, to start the commercial journey. Let’s not talk about deployment at scale, but start the commercial journey. That’s one, I moved from oil and gas into venture capital to learn that world. That’s where opportunistically Paul Wasco from MIT came to me, and said, “Hey, I have this idea. I’ve been working on this thing for 10 years. I think we can drill much deeper to unlock geothermal energy.” That’s where the meaning of minds came together. The second part is the quantitative part as an engineer, it’s almost like, “Why do I say that we don’t have the technology to transition energy, but it boils down to numbers.
How much does it take? How much energy does it take to power civilization today in the 21st century?” It takes about 20 to 25 terawatts.
It doesn’t matter where it’s come from. Most of it comes from fossils, but I don’t care about that. I just care that that’s an important number, 20 to 25 terawatts, and it doubles every 25 years. It’s been doubling for 200 years. I don’t have any reason to believe that it’s going to stop doubling in the next 25, unless something really bad happens. That nails down the core challenge. We need to come up with anywhere from 40 to 50 terawatts of energy, hopefully, carbon-free energy by 2050, and probably two, three, four, five times as much by 2100. When you look at those things quantitatively like that, you start realizing, “What could possibly do it?”
You land in only three places and there’s really three technologies. Three sources of energy that can actually scale to those levels. The first one is nuclear fusion, geopolitically, and very sensitive. If it doesn’t scale it’s for those reasons, fusion is what the sun does. We still don’t know how to do that as humans, but it can certainly scale to that. The geothermal, which is the last untapped, renewable. It’s tapped, marginally, everything else, wind, solar, hydroelectric, and tidal wave, it all won’t scale to those levels. We can talk about the details at length, but that’s really how you land into those things. Opportunistically wanting venture capital, meeting for and quantitatively, figuring out that there’s only a solution set of three, really transition energy.
Dylan: What if it may be put into perspective why solar and wind aren’t appropriate. There’s been so much energy put into those sources. Is there just not enough land? There’s certainly enough sun.
Carlos: There’s certainly enough sun, for sure. It boils down to three quantities. There’s more to it, but I’m not going to talk about intermittency. I’m not going to talk about base loads. Those are secondary things. I’m going to talk about first-order effects. When you think of the scale of tens of terawatts or even more, you start coming into the realization that we don’t live in an infinite world. I think it’s the first time in the history of our species, where the world is no longer infinite to what we need to do with the resources we have.
Three quantities, number one, the land intensity per unit of energy for wind-solar is 100 to 1,000 times larger than it is for fossil fuel.
Today, we operate mostly with fossil fields. About 85% of our energy comes from fossil fuel, whole energy, not just electricity, which means that replacing every single watt or terawatt will claim a premium on land of 100 to 1,000 X? Is that a problem? It is not a problem at one gigabyte or even 100 gigabytes, but it’s a problem at the 30 to 40 terawatt level. It’s too much. The ecological consequences of deploying at that scale are just as bad as carbon in the atmosphere. Land intensity is one, material intensity, same argument per unit of energy.
The amount of materials you pick your material. Could be cement, could be steel, could be copper, could be nickel per unit of energy wind and solar take up anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times more than fossil fuel of those materials. Sure enough, you hear it today. Mining’s going to boom. We don’t have enough materials to do this stuff. Maybe we do, but we need to really ramp up mining. Again, is it a problem? Yes. At tens of terawatts, it is a problem at one gigawatt. It’s not a problem.
The third one is labor intensity that has more to do with geopolitics. How much of the species actually gets involved in procuring our energy. To give you an example, if you go back to the beginning of civilization, the big invention of agriculture allowed less humans to spend time procuring their food, and that liberated humans to do other things. Here we are going backward with respect to energy, we’re going to involve many more humans procuring our energy simply because the labor intensity for units of energy is much more.
We’re still talking about 100 to 1,000 times more. I think those three things will combine to not make it possible. We’ll deploy at great scales and there’s plenty of growth to be having wind and solar. Don’t get me wrong, but we’ll see plenty over the next 20 years. If we do just that, we’re going to sit in 2040 looking back and say, “Oh my God, we’re barely scratching the surface. That’s why I say that we need to do things that really have the muscle to go to attack those three quantities, labor intensity and learning intensity in a fundamentally different way.
Dylan: Okay. Can you give us just geothermal 101 beginner’s guide to geothermal energy generation?
Carlos: The resource itself is thermal energy in the earth. If you think of the planet itself it’s very hot inside. It’s as hot in the new nuclear war as the surface of the sun. This energy, this thermal energy that’s stored in the planet is a thermal battery the size of a planet. That thermal energy is there from two sources. The first one is the origin of the planet when it came together through gravitational bombardment. The second one is radioactivity K in the cross in the materials that are inside the planet. It is really a heat engine that’s slowly cooling down. It’s been cooling down for billions of years and it will continue to cool down for billions of years.
It cools down at the rate of 40 terawatts. That’s nice as much as we used today as humans just by itself. Regardless of whether we tap into the resource or not, it’s already cooling down like that. The best estimates will tell us that the sun will stop shining before the earth fully cools down. Fusion will run out before the geothermal energy in the planet runs out because they cool down at a very different rate. The sun shines at a much higher rate. That’s the resource. Now we’re talking about a planet-size thermal battery, the amount of energy there is, for all intents and purposes, infinite. Now we don’t have access to all that heat. We have access to only the heat that’s close to us.
In some places, that’s pretty close to us. Some places, you have hot springs, have hot water running like rivers, and that’s what humans have historically used in places like Kenya. You get 50% of your energy, and electricity from geothermal, in Iceland, you get about 30%. Some countries are very keen on that because it’s easy for them to do it, but it only takes really a little bit deeper. By a little bit, I really mean a little bit. The planet is 6,000 kilometers thick. The Radius of the planet is 6,000 kilometers. We’re talking about really 3 to 12 miles worth 5 to 20 kilometers. That’s a very small fraction of a percent of the size of the planet.
If we could do that you start getting, you start making every place on earth as prolific with geothermal energy, as Iceland, or Kenya, or typical places that you see with that now. Geothermal today is mostly in those places where it’s easy, geothermal tomorrow is where we will make it possible through a technological advance.
Dylan: Can you explain how Quaise, what Quaise Energy’s innovation is in accomplishing that?
Carlos: Yes, glad to do that. It is very deep, but I’ll say this too. It is the closest you’ve ever been to infinite clean energy, no matter how you put it. It’s like a trip to the grocery store in some places. It is. There’s no way to get access to clean infinite energy, and then only 3 to 12 miles. That’s another way to spin this. It is very close, but it is hard to get there. What Quaise is doing, what the innovation, the innovation comes from the MIT plasma science fusion center. There’s a good reason for that. They repurposed fusion ideas used for fusion reactors to make a drilling system, which is driven by electromagnetic energy.
I’ll start explaining and field the attribute. The first, how we do this is we are going to use the oil and gas industry to drill conventionally using existing technologies through the first portion of the earth. They are masters at drilling in sedimentary rock. They do that really well. It’s regulated and there’s a lot of geohazards. They know how to do that. I know that I used to work in that industry. That’s what they do for a living. The first portion will drill conventionally, and that could mean one mile, maybe two, maybe three, depending on where you are, but sure enough, at those steps of two to three miles, you’re going to hit the basement rock.
The basement rock is below, and there we’re going to do things a little bit differently. Now, instead of rotating the drill bit to grind the rock, we’re going to inject two things into the hole, through a pipe that looks just like an oil pipe. We’re going to inject millimeter waves. Millimeter waves are like microwaves from your oven. There’s nothing special to them other than the fact that we can make them very efficiently, using machines invented with infusions called gyrotrons.
We are going to inject millimeter waves into the pipe, and we’re going to inject a gas into the pipe. The two things go down through the pipe to the bottom of the hole, the millimeter waves exit the pipe, and vaporize the rock. They literally hit the rock and vaporize it. The gas that we inject to the pipe is then going to pick up those vapors and blow them out of the. There’s ideas here from two worlds, ideas from fusion and ideas from oil and gas, from fusion you have the concept of gyrotrons. You have the concept of transferring electromagnetic beam over a pipe, metallic pipe, over very long distances.
That’s exactly what they need to do for a fusion reactor. From oil and gas, you have the concept of direct circulation of gas to remove material. That’s it. Basically, with those two concepts together, you’ve just made a drilling system that lacks drill bits. It lacks electronics, it lacks fancy sensors because it lacks those its chances of surviving those environments is exponentially greater.
We achieve access to those conditions because we’re making a simple system. Now, you’re sacrificing other things that the problem here is to get there in the first place. That’s, in essence, how millimeter rocks, very simple in the whole system, nothing complex goes in the hole on the metallic pipe and everything, all the complex parts stay on the surface on the drilling rig.
Dylan: Actually, you gave me some great visuals of this stuff before the show, before our recording, and I will put those up in the show notes if we can, so people can visualize it. Just quickly, maybe just for scale, what kind of diameter of hole are we talking about here?
Carlos: To me, it’s quite important that this is as much as possible a plug-and-play technology to oil and gas. If we succeed in doing this, and it is incredibly difficult or far from what oil and gas does today, it doesn’t scale as quickly. To me, when I think of the size of the system we’re designing it will have to, and it will look like the size of an oil and gas operation. We’re talking about eight-inch diameter holes like a basketball. We’re talking about holes that are vertical, and they’re not all 20 kilometers deep. 20-kilometer deep is the extreme range in those places with the geothermal it’s very low, but in many places, three kilometers is enough in others, four and five.
That’s what we’re talking about. Each of those wells is capable of producing anywhere from 50 to 100 megawatts of thermal energy. That’s a huge departure to put that into perspective that looks like oil and gas. Well, an oil and gas well produces that kind of power in the form of oil or gas. We are producing in the form of supercritical or supercritical water. To compare with other geothermal, we’re talking about 10 times to 100 times more energy per well, than the shallower types of geothermal. We’re talking about holes that are consistent with drill capabilities of the fleet of drill rigs available in the world today.
We’re not going to ask the oil industry to have to come up with brand new drilling rigs to be able to hold it for that distance. Very, very match to what exists in the world today in terms of drilling rate, drilling technologies, handling capabilities. Very importantly, and I always talk about this, the ability to use the steam at the heat rates and at the great necessary to repower a power plant. There’s 10,000 fossil fired power plants in the world today. What if we could repower them with this steam as opposed to retiring them and creating all brand new infrastructure with wind and solar, for example. We really design around what the world has today and how we actually plug and play into that world.
Dylan: You’re effectively replacing the energy source that all these fossil-based power plants are using today. All the downstream infrastructure is still usable for generating electricity.
Carlos: Very much so, we have to move fast so there’s 10,000 power plants, and they produce mostly two-thirds of the electricity we consume in the world today. I think repowering them is such a beautiful opportunity, if you can fit the steam to them, and you’re right. The only part about a power plant that’s problematic is the boiler that’s burning the fossil fuel to make the steam. If you could get the steam of the same grade from the ground that takes care of everything. That basically, eliminates a very small fraction of the infrastructure, the boiler, and keeps the other 90% of the infrastructure intact to repower, so that’s a foundational idea.
Even if we don’t repower the power plant, we will build a new power plant if necessary. If you go to a place where there’s not a power plan, you build it. But the important thing is that there’s plenty of- there’s a whole industry in the world today, which has taken almost a century to create. That is in the business of building power plants. Again, even if we have to build a power plan, you are pulling on those industries that are already made. There’s workforces, there’s supply chains, there’s regulatory frameworks already in place. I don’t think we can afford to ignore 100 years of fossil energy development just like that if a solution, as simple as that can come forward.
Dylan: I’m curious about scale a little bit here. I imagine that replacing terawatts of fossil-based energy is a massive undertaking. Can you help me put that into perspective? How many wells are we talking about drilling? How many power plants are we converting?
Carlos: Let me try to bring perspective on that from different angles. A terawatt, how much is a terawatt? A terawatt is the total electric consumption of the United States today. That’s the skill we’re talking about. The United States is arguably the biggest consumer of energy in the world, maybe very closely followed by China. That’s a terawatt. Another point. Wind and solar today combined are close to a terawatt. They’re a little bit over a terawatt these days. I think it’s 1.2 terawatts. The total deployment of wind and solar over the last three decades, everywhere in the world is just coming up to a terawatt. That’s a terawatt.
What does it mean on a third point, the only industry with a proven track record to put a terawatt of new energy into the mix every year is guess who? The oil and gas industry. When oil fields deplete, they produce less and less, and the world still sucks up depending on the year, anywhere from 80 to 100 million barrels per day. How does the oil industry keep up that production when all of the oil fields are depleting? Well, they have to put up more new capacity, and when you add that up, it’s roughly a terawatt. Every year, the oil industry has to drill and put enough wells to close a one terawatt gap, and they’ve been doing it since the ’60s or ’70s, so that is the only industry that’s the scale of a terawatt.
Now, when we translate that to what we’re doing in geothermal, as I mentioned before, let’s just think qualitatively as engineering to magnitude. This may get technical for some of the audience but I want to follow this process. A well we’ll give 100 megawatts. 100 megawatts is 10 to the 8 watts. 10 to the power of eight. A terawatt is 10 to the power of 12 Giga, tera, from 10 to the power of 8, to 10 to the power of 12, there’s 4 orders of magnitude. That’s 10,000. You need 10,000 wells per year. That’s it. That’s a terawatt, roughly speaking 10,000 wells. Is that too much or is that too little? Let’s look at historical figures.
How many wells has the oil and gas industry on average, for the last 10 years, on an annual basis between 30 to 50,000 watts per year in the United States alone. The oil and gas industry, and I always trust this because these skills are important, replicating this scale takes centuries. It’s taken a century for this industry to emerge with the size that it has today so we’re talking about 10,000 wells of which the oil and gas industry is capable of doing 50,000 on a good year, 30,000 on a bad year in the United States alone. It is within the capabilities and these are different wells. They’re deeper. That’s where the technology comes in, but otherwise, they’re the same organization, same logistics, same infrastructure scale.
That’s basically the best way I can put it. That’s what a terawatt looks like, and the world will run on 50 of those by 2050. These numbers really put into perspective the scale of the challenge, and we don’t think in numbers like this. We don’t think quantitatively we’re going to fail. We’re not going to transition energy. That means we’re going to have 50% plus of the mix being provided by fossil in 2050, and sure enough, every extrapolation, every pathway put out there by any major think tank institution predicts precisely that. That we’re going to be at maybe 50% to 70% mix of fossil fields by 2050.
Doesn’t sound a success, especially when we’re looking at 1.5 degrees Celsius. We cannot emphasize enough how we need to elevate our thinking to this level to actually come up and roll up our sleeves and come up with the right solutions.
Dylan: We talk about it being an infinite source. Is there an infinite source of energy at each drilling site, or can you deplete the heat in that local area?
Carlos: Nothing infinite, not even solar is infinite. The sun will eventually die, but for the type of geothermal we’re bringing forward, you normally design the site to produce at the design point that you design it for, for 30 to 50 years. Those are the typical depreciation schedules for these assets. It means that after that time, there will be thermal drawdown, the rock down there will get colder and by colder, I’m talking about 5 degrees colder, 5 to 10 degrees colder. I’m not talking about chilling the rock that’s not possible. Then you’re off the design point. At that point, your steam is no longer what’s optimal for the power plant.
That may force you to move away from using that steam as an electric generation source and maybe use it for other uses, or that may require you to move to another side. If you move to the north, to the south to the east, or to the west side, let’s say a mile, you have fresh new rock there where you can replicate the process and have another 50 to 100 years. You can do this no matter where you are. Now what happens to the one you left behind is that in another 50 to 100 years, if we allow ourselves as humans to think that long, which capitalism doesn’t allow us to do, you could go back to that one.
It would be refreshed because heat keeps emanating from the center of the earth and it continues to hit that rock back up to what it was before. Arguably, you could go back in 100 years, and you have an asset to go back. Now, capitalism doesn’t know what to do with 100 years, but this is what’s going to happen. Sure enough, you see it in many places there are still thermal power sites that have been going around for decades and not 100 years, and they still keep giving and keep giving.
Dylan: Let’s talk about the business side of Quaise Energy a little bit. Who will your customers be and what will you sell? Are you selling energy or drilling services, what does that look like?
Carlos: Clearly an energy company. We’re not very interested in being a drilling services provider, a real technology provider. We might do that as a small company. All small companies need to do whatever they have to do to create a business, but in the fullness of time, what I pitch to investors is that we are an energy company and that means we’re in the business of providing steam, or electricity to the major load centers of the world. I think in 2050, if everything else that’s going on with green steel, green cement, capture, new novel chemical manufacturing processes, you name it.
All of these industries that are emerging and the ones that are existing by converting, they will all use mostly electricity or heat as an input so we provide that. The heat comes in the form of steam. The electricity comes in the form of steam becoming electricity through a power cycle. The clients are then those emerging industries and those existing industries whose primary energy input is electricity or steam, pretty much everybody in the world. We’re not interested in small-scale drilling that deep requires a certain amount of capital, a project is usually in the $100 to $500 million.
It doesn’t really make sense to do these for most small-scale residential heat, for example, or small-scale grid. It has a certain size to it. By that I mean, a typical project is in the 100 megawatt to gigawatt scale. Those utility-scale type heat and electric applications.
Dylan: That’s pretty capital intensive. How does this become cost-competitive on a basis?
Carlos: Let’s talk about LCOE. Levelized cost of energies. We design for 1 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, including the drilling, including the surface infrastructure, including the building of the power plant. When you depreciate that over 30, 40, 50 years, these are large assets. You come down that you have to be in the $1 to $3 per watt. That’s how we think about this. If we want to be in that range of LCOE, our 100-megawatt development has to come in all costs included in the $100 to $300 million and depreciate over 30, 40, 50 years. How do you do that? Well, you have to attack two things. The first one is the drilling cost. The reason this doesn’t happen in the world today is not because we can’t do it, we can do it. There’s species we’ve drilled very deep and very hot holes. The reason we don’t do it today is that as we go deeper, it becomes exponentially more expensive to do so. You’re very quickly out the money. We’re attacking the cost of drilling first and foremost.
The way we’d like to think about it. We have to be able to drill for $1,000 per meter, regardless of how deep you are. That is in the ballpark of drilling cost today for shallow. It’s not in the ballpark of drilling cost today for deep. The second thing you need to attack is the power plant itself. They’re capital-intensive projects. Building a power plant takes a lot of money and a lot of time, no matter how you spin it. By repurposing the power plants, which is how we will start this business, you move away from that cost. You’re basically replacing the operating cost of the field, which is one of the dominant costs, with the capital cost depreciated over time of the geothermal development.
That’s where we land. We land in the 1 to 3 watts per capita of all costs included, and we land in the 1 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour at scale. That’s on power with wind and solar but it doesn’t require storage, it’s already built-in. I think that’s quite compelling. Now, the first project is never that or the second or the third but that’s what you extrapolate on that scale. The way you do that is by really reaching very, very large scales, talking about tens of gigawatt to start deploying at that scale, which is what oil and gas does.
Dylan: Actually, repurposing those power generation plants is a big part of the story. What does that look like? Is there competition for that resource as those get retired from fossil-based energy production?
Carlos: Yes, the space, when I look at the competition for the power plant, what I see is two trends. The first one is repurposing the grid interconnection and the land available to the power plant. The argument goes like this, “Hey, let’s put a solar park or a wind farm in the vicinity of the power ground because you already have a great interconnect and we can see people in there very easily.” Transmission continues to become one of the bottlenecks with scale renewals because they’re so diffused. These parts that you have to build a lot of transmission for. People also say things like, “Let’s put thermal generation batteries, or very fast battery banks co-located with the power plant.”
They’re really looking to repurpose a very small portion of the power plant’s assets, the grid interconnection, and the land. The other camp, the energy sources that have the hump to actually repower the power plant. Turbine, that I mentioned three, and sure enough the other two are also aiming to do the same. When you look at fission or fusion, you’ll hear them talking about, “What if we put a small fission or fusion reactor to feed steam to the turbine rather than from the boiler, which is the same idea we’re promoting. Those are the two camps. That’s the competition. It will boil down to post steam which is cheaper, including gas.
The steam coming from gas will have a role to play because economics plays a role, but I think that’s how you think about it. Now, I think that repurposing only the grid interconnect is wasteful. I think it is much more elegant and efficient to repurpose the full asset rather than just the grid interconnect. I want to be clear with these people when they think of coal power plants or gas power plants, they imagine these 70-year-old things that need to be put down anyway.
Not at all, there’s hundreds of power plants being built in the world, brand new today. Maybe not in the United States but you see those are going to be around for the next 40, 50, 60 years. Those are the ones that represent a risk to the energy transition, and the ones we want to use capitalistic forces through this technology to actually re-convert. That’s how we think about it. They’re there, they’re going to be there, and if we don’t repower them, they’re going to be spilling CO2 for the rest of our lifetime.
Dylan: You’re creating essentially, equal access to energy anywhere in the world. What does that mean geopolitically? In terms of energy security, how do you look at that?
Carlos: I think it’s unique. When you look at it from the point of view of energy access, energy security, and geopolitics, I think no other source comes close to geothermal. Let me explain why. Let’s talk about energy security. Access to the primary energy is below your feet. You have full control. As long as you control your territory, you control your energy source period. There’s nothing that comes in, there’s no shipments of fuel, there’s no shipments of waste, so the energy itself is completely under your control. That’s energy independence for everybody on earth. Now, could you say the same thing about solar maybe or wind?
The wind and the sun shine on you, and as long as you control the territory, you have access to them but remember that they don’t have the power density. For many countries, they can actually do it. If you think of a lot of Europe, or you think of Southeast Asia, very densely populated, very energy-intense, and maybe not so rich in land. I think that’s where it bridges for them and which geothermal has in each. Now, once you build the infrastructure, you have it for decades. The only geopolitical sensitivity there is the ability to actually pull in the infrastructure to build these assets. I don’t think that technology will be available for everybody.
No technology is available to all. You always have to import that from somebody but as soon as you build it, it’s yours. You see a good example of that with oil and gas. As soon as you build the oil fields, they’re yours. Now, the others are geopolitically dependent on your oil getting to them but you’re not because the oil is yours. You’re geopolitically dependent on refining the oil but here there’s none of that. There’s no such thing as storing hot water for somebody else. You don’t export or import that, you simply convert it to electricity and you consume it or export the electricity.
I think it really changes many things and there’s no fuel, no waste, and no geographical dependency. Once you build the infrastructure, it really creates a very different world from the one we have today. There’s no dependencies on massive imports of the materials like the solar panels, the, the turbine blades, all of those things manifest. They do manifest but they manifest in very different scales simply because the power density is much higher.
Dylan: I’d love to talk about the tech, at least a little layer deeper. I know millimeter waves are not a new technology, it’s used in radar and communications and things like that. What have been the challenges in adapting it for drilling like this?
Carlos: Millimeter waves have been used extensively for decades now in communications and ranging radar. When you go through the airport, there’s millimeter-wave machines that scan you. When you hold your 5G, then the next generation phones, there will be millimeter wave phones. It’s really just the electromagnetic spectrum that’s very interesting to use. What’s changed in the last 20 years, and this is MIT’s contribution to realize this is number one, when you’re talking about very high-power millimeter-wave sources, we’re talking about a megawatt of power. We’re not talking about powering your cellphone with a cell tower but a megawatt of power to pay the price.
The gyrotrons which emerged in the 1950s as a tool for fusion research have matured to the point where you can actually buy them from many suppliers around the world. The ether experiment, the fusion experiment in the South of France ordered 24 of them just recently from different suppliers and they delivered. The Gyrotron is number one. They exist, they’re robust, they’ve been maturing for the last seven years to make the millimeter-wave surveyed to become a millimeter-wave source at 1 megawatt level as possible. Number two, the science behind piping all this energy inside a metallic pipe has also been evolving.
Now, when you initiate a plasma, you have the hydrogen in the plasma chamber that is the on the tritium, and then you have the millimeter-wave source far from it. You have to get the energy from one point to the other, and you do that through waveguides. Waveguides have been evolving and maturing. The science behind them has been evolving to the point where you can carry all of this power, we’re borrowing that idea too. The third one is simply the fact that the world truly does need to win fossil fuels. If you remove that condition, we just keep running fossil fuels.
I think one of those three things converge to make it technically possible and to make it necessary from an economic point of view. That’s what’s new, that’s why this makes sense now. Now, they spent 10 years proving that the science actually worked. We didn’t step into this company just with the idea like that, we had a 10-year program of research, which had fundamentally established that you can burn rock with millimeter waves very efficiently. You can transport this energy and that you can make usable force. Paul Wasco did all of that. Now, going forward, the challenges are about scaling.
It’s very different to do something on a benchtop scale with tens of kilowatts available to you from doing it in the field. Where you have a full operation, which has to be regulated and permitted. Safety plays a huge role, and you’re working with megawatt sources. That’s what we as a company think of as our biggest challenges going forward. Scaling that operation to a field operation, not a lab operation, and then demonstrating it but we still have enough control over the process to do it at every increase in depth. That’s all in front of us. Today, we’d find ourselves traveling through their intersection between the academic lab. We’re out of that into a national lab or in there into the field, which is what comes next for us.
Dylan: How hot is it down at the bottom of these wells? You said you’re getting supercritical temperatures.
Carlos: The short answer is 300 to 500 degrees Celsius or 600 to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Those high temperatures, you just don’t know. There’s no complication with “ You’re an engineer. That’s the short answer. The true answer is that we want this thing to repower a power plant, so you start thinking about the power plant first, what’s the turbine inlet specification? What steam temperature, and what steam pressure does it want to operate optimally. Then, you backtrack from that to design the geothermal field to provide that. For most power plants in the world, that translates to the 300 to 500 degrees Celsius at the rock that I mentioned.
That’s how we think about them. We’re not always drilling 20 kilometers and 500 degrees Celsius, we drill what we have to drill to feed the turbine what it wants, what it needs. That roughly translates into 300 to 500 degrees Celsius, and 3 to 12 miles universally, globally speaking for this planet. That’s how we think about that. Now, how do we remove the heat? How do we extract the heat? The heat is there, there’s zero uncertainty about that, so unlike oil and gas where there is a resource uncertain, there’s such a thing as drilling a dry well and losing all your money because you can’t get a single drop of oil out of that well. The concept doesn’t exist here, there’s always going to be heat.
Dylan: To interrupt you, that does exist with traditional geothermal, right? That’s something I’ve heard is that-
Carlos: It does exist.
Dylan: There is a lot of drilling exploration when you’re not able to go as deep as Quaise is able to go.
Carlos: Yes, and the reason it exists is because almost 100% of the geothermal that exists in the world today is hydrothermal, so it’s looking for hot water in place. You could not heat the water. You could miss the aquifer by 100 meters. If you missed it, then that’s a dry well, you have to. We’re not going for the aquifer in place because at those depths, it’s very unlikely that aquifers will exist. We’re simply looking for the hard rock and the hard rock is always- there’s no such thing as missing the hard rock by 100 meters. It’s impossible, it’s everywhere.
There is such a thing as maybe having to drill 100 more meters to get to the temperature you wanted. That’s relatively small compared to the bigger scheme of things. To extract the heat, you need to circulate the water, you need to get the water in contact with the rock. The water we put into the hole. You’ve got to get it in contact with the rock. The rock itself, you need a heat exchanger, and that can take a variety of forms. The simplest one is that I will introduce a concept from geology which is universally accepted. The crust of the earth is critically stressed and, therefore, fractured everywhere. There’s no such thing as solid granite or basalt in the basement which is without fractures, it’s always fractured.
In many places, those fractures have enough permeability to allow you to circulate water through them. If you put a hole in one spot, and a hole in another spot, in between them, you have this rock and there’s enough permeability for water to move forward and sweep the heat away from the rock. That’s one. The second possibility is that, yes, the permeability is there, the fractures are there, but it’s too low, you need to enhance it. You need to apply about 500 to 1,000 psi additional pressure from the liter static to open them up, and then you prop them open.
This sounds and looks like a fracturing operation in oil and gas, but it is quite different when you actually execute it because you’re in a very different geological setting. Now, it’s not easy to do, and there’s a lot of research going on in the world to do this, not least for the FORGE experiment by the Department of Energy in Utah. Look it up, for example, or look up the Beyond-Brittle project in Japan, or the IDDP in Iceland. All these people are trying to enhance those processes. In that process, you enhance the permeability. That then allows you to sweep the heat away.
In a third embodiment, you don’t need enough heat waves. Let’s say, you’re not trying to repower a power plant, you’re trying to simply feed some hot water to an industrial process or to an agricultural process that requires a lot less heat per well than a power plant would. You may get away with a closed-loop system, which means you don’t actually fracture into the rock, you simply circulate the fluid in and out. Best examples of companies like these are Eavor, GreenFire, and a few others that are doing that. Those are different schemes depending on the use that you have for the heat.
I do believe that, again, when we talk about terawatt scales, you need to fracture the rock. You don’t need to fracture the rock, the rock’s fractured. You need to enhance and open up those fractures and prop them open so that you create enough probability to get the heat rays that you want. That’s how you extract the heat. They call these enhanced or engineered geothermal systems. The idea goes back to the ’70s. It’s been successfully carried out in some places and unsuccessfully carried on in other places.
Let’s not diminish that part of the problem. It is almost or equally as hard and as important as the drilling part of the problem, but that’s how you would do it. The drilling gives you access to the heat, and the fracturing or Enhanced Geothermal Systems, EGS approach will give you access to the surface area to then produce the heat for a long time at the place that you want.
Dylan: That’s typically done by pressurizing the hole.
Carlos: There’s two mechanisms. In oil and gas, it’s mostly through pressurizing. You actually pressurize. Pressure alone is the mechanism that gives you the permeability enhancement, but in geothermal, temperature plays a significant role too. The best analogy of that is what happens to a block of ice when you throw it into water, it cracks, it fractures because of the thermal shock. When you’re in that deep rock at those temperatures, you’ll basically quench your shock.
I’m not talking about freezing it, I’m talking about dropping it from 500 degrees C to 300 degrees C very quickly. That creates a fracture network which then when you apply pressure will extend, and then you can repeat this process. This happens in oil and gas, by the way, where people are producing oil and gas from too hot a well. We’re talking about 170 to 200 degrees Celsius. There is a concern of fracturing the rock because the mud is too cold. Now imagine the rock is not 200, 400, or 500, this is certainly going to happen, and that plays a big role in the fracture process. It’s more thermally and pressure-driven than simply a pressure-driven process like oil and gas.
Dylan: This is an important aspect that I hadn’t realized before. But there are two drilled holes, one to input the cold water and one to take out, and then that water transfers through the fractures and your heat exchanger, and then a second hole to take the hot water out, or the supercritical water out.
Carlos: Yes. In fact, you need one to inject and to produce because the water changes density significantly on the way in and out. When you inject, it’s close to 1,000 kilograms per cubic liter, the density, and when you produce it, it’s close to a half or third of that, so you need more room on the way out than on the way in. Normally, the minimum set is three wells to producers, and you repeat that arrangement. That arrangement will give you anywhere from 100 to 200 megawatts of thermal energy, and you repeat that arrangement as many times as necessary to get the heat rates that you want.
If you’re trying to get a one-gigawatt power plant going, then you’ll need to repeat that arrangement five, six, seven times. We’re talking about dozens of wells, you’ll see. We’re not talking about hundreds or thousands of wells, we’re talking about repowering those power plants with dozens of wells, which is a piece of cake for oil and gas. If you ask oil and gas to drill 100 wells, they’ll do it in their sleep. If you ask them to drill 12, they get bored, right? This is the importance of scale.
Dylan: Dozens of wells per plant?
Carlos: Per plant.
Dylan: Thinking about the future of Quaise and the geothermal energy production space, in that context, where do you hope Quaise Energy will be in 10 years?
Carlos: We are still in the lab. We’re still transitioning from the lab into the field over the next three years. My aspiration is that we’ll convert the first power plant this decade. 10 years is too short a timeframe for these kinds of companies. It’s not unique to this company, all major technological undertakings take a long time, 10, 15 years to mature. In 10 years, I’ll be very happy if we have success with one, two, maybe five power plants, and then it’s slowly establishing itself as something that’s financial at scale, and something that the oil and gas industry can do at scale.
The true value of what we’re doing doesn’t really make a difference in the 2020s, but it makes all the difference in the 2030s and ’40s. In fact, I think that it is the only thing that actually makes a difference in the ’30s and ’40s.
Dylan: Few closing questions, and we touched on this a little bit, but how optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of our planet, and why?
Carlos: I get anxiety about these things as a human. Forget about me as Quaise or as an engineer. I have kids, 13, 16, and 21, so they’re not babies, but they’re not too old. They’re going to have these issues in their lives, so it belongs in our generation to solve this problem. When I look at history, I don’t think we’re faced by this challenge as a species but we face very daunting challenges in the technology and the knowledge we had at the time. I see repeatedly in history that we’ve been able to overcome, but we need to focus on the right things.
I see myself very much as an optimist and as one of my key missions in life to put in front of the world, the fact that these kinds of things are not optional, they’re absolutely necessary. That we have to support them and make them happen, because if we don’t, we’re not going to succeed. I’m very vested in our success as a species. I’m optimistic, but I think there’s a lot of awareness to be had.
I talk on behalf of fusion and fission as I think that those are the only other things that can actually move the needle enough to make a difference. These things need to happen. Not because they’re nice because they’re cool because they make money. I don’t think there’s any other options, and I don’t want to be pessimistic about wind and solar. I think they play a role, but they just don’t play to the scale of the problem.
Dylan: Well said, who’s one other person or company doing something to address climate change right now. That’s inspiring you.
Carlos: They all fall in that space. Here I have to be a little bit more diverse. I’ve been talking about primary energy supply, and that’s when I think there’s only three ways to do it, but certainly, that’s not all that needs to happen. There’s carriers of energy and there’s demand for energy. It serves us. We don’t succeed if we procure all the energy we can from clean sources, if we don’t have demand centers to consume that clean energy. When we talk about demand or the carriers, there’s brilliant companies, everybody doing a direct, I think that’s a necessity.
We have to do that at any cost. That’s a necessity, we put more than a trillion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. We gotta take it back. That’s non-negotiable, on the demand centers, electrification of transportation plays a big role. Electrification of industry plays a big role. I won’t name specific names there. On the primary supply side, which is where I find my camp more at home, because that’s the part that I’m trying to solve with Quaise. I love what these fusion companies are doing. Very specifically, I love what Commonwealth fusion systems is doing.
They’ve elevated the dialogue and the ambition to the level that’s required. I think there’s still a lot of pushback about fusions going to get, it’s going to take another 50 years. We cannot afford not to do things like fusion, kudos to that team, Bob, the CEO because these things have to happen. They’re non-negotiable to me and these humans that undertake that mission, that awareness, elevating the dialogue to that, they belong in history. Absolutely close to that.
Dylan: Awesome. Thanks for calling them out. I’ve taken a look, and it looks like they’ve raised a good chunk of cash. Maybe some investors are seeing the same opportunity.
Carlos: A lot of cash, $2 billion or more.
Dylan: What advice do you have for someone not working in climate tech today? Who wants to do something to help?
Carlos: Don’t be shy about undertaking, understanding the complexity and the scales of these things. We shy away from quantitative thinking, not everybody does, but, in general, we tend to shy away from quantitative and complex thinking. I think this is what this problem is about. My aspiration is that people looking at wanting to do something about climate, they don’t get content with just the little things, but they actually develop a good understanding of the size of the problem and then make a critical judgment for themselves. Given that understanding of the size, where they can actually make a difference. I think if more aspiring people, more aspiring engineers, scientists, economies, et cetera think at that level, we start realizing, we start playing the game at the right level. My concern is that I think there’s still a lot of lack of awareness of the size of the challenge. We think that doing little things is going to help. It will, but it will help so little, it doesn’t make a difference. I won’t call out things here because I don’t want to be critical with the work that humans do. It’s all-important. I want to call attention to that. Think about the size of the problem and form a critical opinion for yourself about how you can actually make a difference.
Dylan: Thank you for that. I think you’ve done an excellent job of demonstrating that way of thinking today. I have to say I’ve learned a lot, and I really appreciate the time you’ve spent with me, and everything you’re doing to address climate change. Thanks, Carlos.Carlos: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity for speaking out these ideas,
- Commonwealth Fusion Systems’ Website
- The FORGE Initiative Website
- Japan Beyond Brittle Project Website
- IDDP Website
- Eavor’s Website
- GreenFire Energy’s Website