Newberry Volcano — the largest volcano in the Pacific Northwest — is the site of an experiment that’s aiming for a breakthrough in geothermal energy.

The experiment is one small step in the high-risk, high-reward world of next generation

geothermal. The goal is to replace fossil fuels with this always-on, renewable energy. The challenge, however, is getting it to work.

To access geothermal energy you need three elements: Heat, water, and permeable rock.

The water flows through gaps in the hot permeable rock, transferring heat from deep underground to the surface. That’s geothermal energy.

The world’s first geothermal resources were the rare places where those three things just happened to come together naturally. Like hot springs or geysers, found in places like the U.S. mountain West.

Early projects were extremely simple: pumping the water into buildings for heat and hot baths. But eventually, starting in the 20th century, countries all around the world — like Italy, Iceland, and the United States — started using geothermal energy to produce electricity, using the steam to power turbines.

This form of energy has one big benefit over other renewables. To understand, let’s compare a geothermal plant and a solar farm, each capable of pumping out the same amount of power.

On the solar farm, let’s say it’s only really sunny for about five hours a day. That means that every day, it only produces 20 percent of its potential. A geothermal plant, on the other hand, can basically produce full power, all day, every day. Which makes geothermal a really useful kind of energy: It’s got all the same “always-on” benefits of a fossil fuel power plant, but it’s renewable.

People were understandably excited about geothermal, and the energy source started to take off in the U.S. after the 1970s energy crisis. But for all its benefits, geothermal energy has only ever played a small role on our grid. And, to understand why, let’s compare it to that solar farm again.

To build this solar farm, you need to find sun. And you do that by, like, looking up. But for the geothermal plant, I’d need to find a rare spot that has all three of those geothermal ingredients, hidden under miles of rock. Then, I’d need to pay for expensive equipment and labor, and go through years of permitting, just to get the plant up and running. So, despite all its benefits, and the almost limitless energy in the earth, it’s hard to make a project pencil out.

Because of these challenges, geothermal energy started to slow down around the 1990s. The industry needed something to change.

That change? A new process known as enhanced geothermal. Instead of relying on places where all three of those geothermal ingredients come together naturally, enhanced geothermal allows you to tap into heat, even if you’re missing the other two.

It works by injecting high pressure water into the ground, forming a network of little cracks for water to flow through and carry heat back to the surface. It’s a similar idea to fracking, but with a lot less pollution.

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