Google on Tuesday took the drilling debate in a different direction – announcing that Google.org is investing nearly $11 million in technology to expand the nation’s geothermal reserves. That’s more than the U.S. government is spending on geothermal projects this year.
Traditional geothermal power plants, like those built by Calpine (CPN) in Northern California, sit atop reserves of naturally occurring steam or hot water that can be tapped to drive electricity-generating turbines. So-called Enhanced Geothermal Systems, or EGS, hope to tap geothermal energy in any location by drilling deep underground to fracture “hot rocks” and then pump them with water to create steam that can be used in a power plant. The great potential, of course, would be to liberate the Midwest and South from their dependence on coal-fired power plants.
“While the U.S. debates drilling in the ocean for oil, we are focused on drilling for renewable energy – and lots of it – right beneath our feet,” Google.org said in a statement, citing a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that estimates the accessible heat below the U.S. represents more than 2,500 times the nation’s annual energy consumption. (A Google.org video on geothermal is above.)
Google.org (GOOG), the search giant’s philanthropic arm, will invest $6.25 million into AltaRock Energy, a Sausalito, startup, developing EGS technology. The investment is part of $26.25 million round of funding AltaRock revealed on Tuesday. Other investors include marquee green-tech venture capitalists Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
Potter Drilling, a Redwood City, Calif., company developing hard-rock drilling technology to be used for geothermal, scored $4 million from Google.org. Other investors include MIT.
Google.org is granting the Southern Methodist University Geothermal Laboratory $489,521 to map North America’s geothermal reserves.
The geothermal funding is the latest investment in renewable energy by Google. It has invested in solar power plant companies BrightSource Energy and eSolar as well as in high-altitude wind company Makani and various ventures related to plug-in hybrid electric cars.