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In Texas, ex-oil and gas workers champion geothermal energy as a replacement for fossil-fueled power plants

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news. This is the second of a three-part series on emerging energy sources and Texas' role in developing them. Part one, on hydrogen fuel, published on Monday; part three, on small nuclear reactors, will publish on Wednesday. STARR COUNTY — In 2009, on a plot of shrub-covered cattle land about 45 miles northwest of McAllen, Shell buried and abandoned a well it drilled to look for gas. The well turned out to be a dry hole. Vegetation grew back over the site. In 2021, a Houston-based energy company run by former Shell employees came looking for it. This company wasn’t drilling for oil or gas, though. Its engineers were looking for a place to experiment with their technology for producing geothermal energy, created by Earth’s underground heat. A startup called Sage Geosystems leased the site. The company installed a wellhead and brought in a diesel-powered pump. They used fluid to create cracks in the rock deep below the surface, a technique similar to fracking for oil and gas. One day last March, the crew pumped 20,000 barrels of water into the 2-mile-deep well. Hours later, an operator opened the well from a control room. Pipes above ground shook as the pressurized water gushed back up. The water spun small turbines, generating electricity. The pressurized water, which was pumped underground and later released to the surface through the well on the right, at the Starr County demonstration on March 22, 2023. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune Left: Water spins a turbine at the Starr County demonstration site. Right: An operator controls the flow in and out of the well. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune Sage and other companies believe geothermal power is key to replacing polluting coal- and gas-fired power plants. Even though solar and wind are proven clean energy sources, they only produce electricity when the sun shines or the wind blows. Geothermal power could provide continuous, emissions-free energy. “Geothermal heat doesn’t have those variable conditions,” University of Texas at Austin clean energy expert Michael Webber said. “If you hit a hot spot below ground — might be thousands of feet down — the heat won’t matter based on whether it’s cloudy or whether it’s summer.” Texas has become an early hot spot for geothermal energy exploration. At least three companies are based in Houston, and scores of former oil industry workers and executives are taking their knowledge of geology, drilling and extraction to a new energy source. “We’ve punched over a million holes in the ground in Texas since Spindletop,” said former Texas oil and gas regulator Barry Smitherman, who has become a geothermal advocate. “So we have a lot of knowledge, and we have a lot of history and skill set.” Hveragerði, a city in Iceland, where 85% of the country's energy is sustainable, either hydroelectric or geothermal. Credit: Raul Moreno/SOPA Images/via REUTERS Heat constantly radiates out from the center of Earth as radioactive elements break down. That energy warms water that bubbles up to or escapes as steam at the surface. Humans have taken advantage of that phenomenon — an early form of geothermal power — for heating, bathing and cooking since ancient times. For more than 100 years, engineers have used that underground hot water or steam to generate electricity. Geothermal power in 2015 fueled 27% of the electricity in Iceland, which sits on one of the world’s most active volcanic zones. In 2022, it generated about 5% of the electricity in California. The United States is the top geothermal electricity producer in the world. Still, the total amount of geothermal electricity produced in America is tiny compared with other sources. It accounted for about 4 gigawatts last year, according to a federal analysis, or enough to power about 800,000 Texas homes. Businesses such as Sage and government researchers say there’s a lot more geothermal power to be had by pumping fluid through hot rock where there is no natural water. With technological advances, a government analysis predicts geothermal power in the U.S. could grow to 90 gigawatts by 2050. That would have been enough to power the entire Texas grid during last summer’s highest-demand day. Companies are racing to develop their technology and techniques to harness this energy source. They vary in how deep they want to drill (from around 7,000 feet, which oil and gas equipment can handle, to 66,000 feet, which it cannot), how they heat the water (in the well or in the rock) and how they bring the heated water back up (in the same well that sent it down or with a second one). Like oil wildcatters, the geothermal industry must figure out the best places to drill. They’ll face the same concerns about triggering earthquakes that have dogged oil and gas fracking operations and previous geothermal efforts. In 2006, a pilot geothermal plant in Switzerland caused a magnitude 3.4 earthquake that damaged buildings and led to the plant’s closure. In 2017, a magnitude 5.5 earthquake linked to a pilot geothermal project in South Korea injured dozens. Companies should follow existing best practices informed by research to monitor seismicity and adjust or pause operations as needed, said William Ellsworth, an emeritus professor at Stanford University. States could also mandate these protocols. “You have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” Ellsworth said. And perhaps most importantly, the geothermal businesses will have to show they can compete with the cost of other power sources, with help from the federal government in the form of Inflation Reduction Act tax credits. The more the technology is deployed, the more the costs might come down, Rice University Associate Professor Daniel Cohan said. Getting the price where the federal government hopes for it to be cost-competitive is “feasible,” Cohan said, “but there’s no guarantee that the industry will get there.” The federal Department of Energy said this month that $20 billion to $25 billion needed to be invested by 2030 to move toward widespread use. “We’re all doing something a little bit different,” Sage CEO Cindy Taff said. “One of us is going to have a breakthrough that really commercializes this stuff.” The daughter of a geophysicist who worked for Mobil, Taff studied mechanical engineering and built a 36-year career at Shell. She worked her way up from production engineer to vice president, managing a team with an annual budget of around $1 billion. Taff explains how Sage Geosystems uses its Starr County well to store energy. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune With freckles and curly hair that falls past her shoulders, Taff said she knew the world wanted to pivot to new energy sources. Her daughter, concerned about climate change, urged her mother to get away from the “dark side” of oil and gas. When former colleagues from Shell told Taff they were co-founding Sage and invited her to join them, she got excited. Taff saw that Sage was a nimble company with people she considered some of the smartest in the industry. The geothermal business had a lot of growing to do, like the early days of wind or solar. Her work could have a large impact. “It was exciting to be working with people that I knew had a sense of urgency and made a difference,” Taff said. “And then, it was exciting to be working for yourself in a way that you can push the agenda.” So, in 2020, Taff took the leap. Her daughter joined the company too. Building interest in geothermal  In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska, killing some 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters and 300 harbor seals. In Augusta, Georgia, 10-year-old Jamie Beard was riveted by the news coverage. “I understood things enough to know that that was not something we wanted,” Beard said. That experience pushed Beard into environmental activism, starting the next day, when she took a Kleenex box decorated like the ocean to raise money for coral reefs. She painted murals about environmental rights. In college, at Appalachian State University, she organized an Earth Day festival and tied herself to trees on a West Virginia mountaintop to protest workers scraping them away to mine for coal. Years before Jamie Beard helped launch Sage Geosystems, she was a student at Appalachian State University teaching others how to use solar ovens. Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Beard Beard went on to study environmental law at Boston University. She represented corporations, telling herself she could make change best from the inside. That proved incorrect. She joined a startup working on technology that could be applied to geothermal drilling. That’s when her life changed. Beard read an interview about the huge potential for geothermal power to provide electricity around the world. The interview was with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jefferson Tester, who led a team that published a 372-page assessment of the resource for the federal government in 2006. “The technology needed to advance … but it wasn’t like it had to invent a whole new area because it’s so compatible with what we do with hydrocarbon extraction,” Tester said in an interview with the Texas Tribune. “They drill holes in the ground and they pull fluids out of the ground, whether they’re gas or liquids, and they sell it. Well, that’s what you do for geothermal too.” Beard read the report over and over. This is my career, Beard thought. The history of modern geothermal power went back a century: The world’s first full-scale geothermal power plant started operating in 1913 in Italy. In 1960, Pacific Gas and Electric built the first commercial geothermal power plant in the United States at a spot in Northern California known as “The Geysers.” In the 1970s, the federal Department of Energy started researching pulling power from what was referred to as hot, dry rock. The country that decade suffered through Arab countries’ embargo on exporting oil to America, causing oil prices to skyrocket. Still, the technology didn’t get far enough for the concept to take off. The Larderello geothermal power plant, which is the world's oldest, was built in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Enel Green Power Engineers built geothermal power plants where they could find existing water resources relatively easily, maybe marked by hot springs or fumaroles, which are holes where hot gases and vapors escape from underground, said Lauren Boyd, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s geothermal technologies office. But building new plants got riskier as prime locations got harder to find. Beard saw opportunity. She knew the oil and gas industry could develop technology quickly. The U.S. ushered in the “shale revolution” as companies drilled horizontally and cracked open rock with hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to extract giant amounts of oil and gas. That technology could be used for geothermal. Beard, 45, is the type of person who speaks with an energy that rubs off on you. Her hair is cut into an angular bob; she wears artsy glasses. She made giving a TED talk look easy. Armed with a $1 million Department of Energy grant, Beard moved to the University of Texas at Austin around 2019 to convince people that now was the time to start a geothermal company. She argued that oil and gas experts did not have to be only the villains in the climate change story; they could also be the people who help alleviate it. Jamie Beard speaks at a SXSW panel titled "Geothermal and the Promise of Clean Energy Abundance" on March 9 in Austin. Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Beard “Oil and gas people are a gigantic brain trust,” Beard said. “They are a huge asset.” Beard had a young son. She learned he inherited a rare genetic condition that gave him a life expectancy of 10 or so years. A journalist from Wired who profiled Beard described a woman facing an existential choice: She could let the doom of his fate swallow her, or focus on changing the world. Beard started by reaching out to industry veterans whom she suspected were retired, golfing and bored. Maybe their grandchildren were after them for being part of the fossil fuel industry that contributes to climate change. Beard said she spent months talking with people like Lance Cook, who retired from Shell as a vice president. Beard said the reaction she usually got was “it’ll never work,” followed by a phone call a few weeks later that the person was still thinking about it. But Cook decided to jump in, and he became the chief technology officer for a new company named for Beard’s son, Sage. Chris Anderson, the leader of TED, known for its conferences with TED talks by experts on various topics, invested $16 million through his climate investment fund. Drilling firm Nabors invested $9 million more. Early successes  Beard wasn’t the only person who saw the potential of leveraging expertise from the oil and gas industry to develop geothermal in Texas. Tim Latimer grew up in a city of about 1,000 residents in Central Texas, where he remembers being fascinated by the Discovery Channel show “Build It Bigger” about constructing large projects that impact many lives, such as bridges, tunnels and dams. Latimer studied mechanical engineering at the University of Tulsa. He wanted a job back in Texas to be near family and friends, so when he graduated in 2012 he went to work on drilling sites while the shale revolution was taking off. Latimer considered whether he should be working in fossil fuels in a world confronting climate change. But working on rapidly developing technology alongside smart people excited him. Moving into wind or solar didn’t feel right after years studying drilling. Fervo CEO Tim Latimer at the Fervo Energy office in Houston on March 22. Credit: Mark Felix for the The Texas Tribune Then came the lightbulb moment. He found the same 2006 geothermal report that inspired Beard. He realized that what he was doing, which included drilling into high-temperature rock in South Texas, presented what he called a “huge opportunity for tech transfer” into geothermal. Latimer thought the idea was so obvious he could join a geothermal company already doing it. He found none. What if this could change how the world gets energy and no one tried it? he wondered. Like other startup founders, he’s articulate and dreams big. At a conference where some wore suits, he wore sneakers, a button-down and jeans. Latimer went to Stanford University Graduate School of Business and met a classmate getting a PhD in geothermal research. Together they started Fervo Energy. They headquartered the business in Houston. Their first Houston-based hire had 15 years of experience working for oil and gas companies Hess and BP. Fervo now employs 80 people, about 60% of whom came from oil and gas work. Fervo’s approach is basically to drill vertically, then use fracking technology to create horizontal cracks in the earth. That way, operators can send water down the well, where it can flow through the small cracks in the rock to heat before coming back up another nearby well. Two California energy providers have signed contracts to buy power from Fervo. Google also has a financial agreement with them. Oil and gas company Devon Energy Corporation invested $10 million. Last summer, Fervo ran a 30-day test in 375-degree rock in Nevada. They deemed it a success, and now the company is building a project nearby in Utah, next to where the Department of Energy has sponsored a geothermal field lab. They expect the project will put power mostly onto the California grid in 2026. Drilling deeper Back in Houston, in a beige set of warehouses on the south side of town, another company led by former oil and gas experts is taking a third approach. Henry Phan left a 19-year career in product development at Schlumberger, where his work included designing drilling equipment that could steer sideways, to join a former colleague who launched Quaise Energy. The company focuses on using millimeter waves — which are higher frequency microwaves like the ones used to heat food — to create wells by vaporizing rock. Henry Phan, vice president of engineering for Quaise Energy, stands with a wave guide that the company uses to direct waves from the surface into the hole they are creating, in Houston on Feb. 15, 2024. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune First: Employees of Quaise Energy stand next to a repurposed drilling rig that will hold a wave guide. Last: Vaporized basalt rock from testing at Quaise Energy in Houston. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune Oil and gas equipment begins to fail when temperatures below ground reach around 400 degrees. Drill bits wear down quickly against harder rock and electronics are pushed past their limits. Using millimeter waves would allow operators to “drill” deeper than oil and gas equipment can go — which means reaching hotter rock that could produce more power. The idea interested Phan, and he thought the physics made sense. Plus, he would work on cutting-edge technology that he thought could be a “big step change for humanity.” Quaise had a lot less bureaucracy than at the giant Schlumberger, where money going into product development seemed to be diminishing. In 2020, he signed on as Quaise’s vice president of engineering. He brought more former colleagues with him. Quaise aims to be able to drill into 300 to 500 degree rock by 2026, produce steam that can generate electricity by 2028 and go commercial after that. Their investors include Nabors, climate investors Prelude Ventures and billionaire Vinod Khosla. In early experiments with the technology, they used millimeter waves to “drill” through an eight-foot cylinder of basalt rock, plus samples of 1- to 2-inch-thick basalt. The examples sit on display in their office. “It’s cool to work on a new product,” Phan said, “but the fact that it can make an impact to … our life and our children’s life and their generation and their kids is monumental. So it’s rewarding from the point of view that we’re working on something that is so impactful if we can make this thing work.” Disclosure: Google, Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here. We can’t wait to welcome you to downtown Austin Sept. 5-7 for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival! Join us at Texas’ breakout politics and policy event as we dig into the 2024 elections, state and national politics, the state of democracy, and so much more. When tickets go on sale this spring, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.

Texas has become an early hot spot for geothermal energy exploration as scores of former oil industry workers and executives are taking their knowledge to a new energy source.

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.


This is the second of a three-part series on emerging energy sources and Texas' role in developing them. Part one, on hydrogen fuel, published on Monday; part three, on small nuclear reactors, will publish on Wednesday.

STARR COUNTY — In 2009, on a plot of shrub-covered cattle land about 45 miles northwest of McAllen, Shell buried and abandoned a well it drilled to look for gas. The well turned out to be a dry hole. Vegetation grew back over the site.

In 2021, a Houston-based energy company run by former Shell employees came looking for it.

This company wasn’t drilling for oil or gas, though. Its engineers were looking for a place to experiment with their technology for producing geothermal energy, created by Earth’s underground heat.

A startup called Sage Geosystems leased the site. The company installed a wellhead and brought in a diesel-powered pump. They used fluid to create cracks in the rock deep below the surface, a technique similar to fracking for oil and gas.

One day last March, the crew pumped 20,000 barrels of water into the 2-mile-deep well. Hours later, an operator opened the well from a control room. Pipes above ground shook as the pressurized water gushed back up. The water spun small turbines, generating electricity.

The pressurized water, which was pumped underground and later released to the surface through the well on the right, at the Starr County demonstration on March 22, 2023. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune
Left: Water spins a turbine at the Starr County demonstration site. Right: An operator controls the flow in and out of the well. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Sage and other companies believe geothermal power is key to replacing polluting coal- and gas-fired power plants. Even though solar and wind are proven clean energy sources, they only produce electricity when the sun shines or the wind blows. Geothermal power could provide continuous, emissions-free energy.

“Geothermal heat doesn’t have those variable conditions,” University of Texas at Austin clean energy expert Michael Webber said. “If you hit a hot spot below ground — might be thousands of feet down — the heat won’t matter based on whether it’s cloudy or whether it’s summer.”

Texas has become an early hot spot for geothermal energy exploration. At least three companies are based in Houston, and scores of former oil industry workers and executives are taking their knowledge of geology, drilling and extraction to a new energy source.

“We’ve punched over a million holes in the ground in Texas since Spindletop,” said former Texas oil and gas regulator Barry Smitherman, who has become a geothermal advocate. “So we have a lot of knowledge, and we have a lot of history and skill set.”

Hveragerði, a city in Iceland, where 85% of the country's energy is sustainable, either hydroelectric or geothermal. Credit: Raul Moreno/SOPA Images/via REUTERS

Heat constantly radiates out from the center of Earth as radioactive elements break down. That energy warms water that bubbles up to or escapes as steam at the surface. Humans have taken advantage of that phenomenon — an early form of geothermal power — for heating, bathing and cooking since ancient times.

For more than 100 years, engineers have used that underground hot water or steam to generate electricity. Geothermal power in 2015 fueled 27% of the electricity in Iceland, which sits on one of the world’s most active volcanic zones. In 2022, it generated about 5% of the electricity in California. The United States is the top geothermal electricity producer in the world.

Still, the total amount of geothermal electricity produced in America is tiny compared with other sources. It accounted for about 4 gigawatts last year, according to a federal analysis, or enough to power about 800,000 Texas homes.

Businesses such as Sage and government researchers say there’s a lot more geothermal power to be had by pumping fluid through hot rock where there is no natural water. With technological advances, a government analysis predicts geothermal power in the U.S. could grow to 90 gigawatts by 2050. That would have been enough to power the entire Texas grid during last summer’s highest-demand day.

Companies are racing to develop their technology and techniques to harness this energy source. They vary in how deep they want to drill (from around 7,000 feet, which oil and gas equipment can handle, to 66,000 feet, which it cannot), how they heat the water (in the well or in the rock) and how they bring the heated water back up (in the same well that sent it down or with a second one).

Like oil wildcatters, the geothermal industry must figure out the best places to drill. They’ll face the same concerns about triggering earthquakes that have dogged oil and gas fracking operations and previous geothermal efforts. In 2006, a pilot geothermal plant in Switzerland caused a magnitude 3.4 earthquake that damaged buildings and led to the plant’s closure. In 2017, a magnitude 5.5 earthquake linked to a pilot geothermal project in South Korea injured dozens.

Companies should follow existing best practices informed by research to monitor seismicity and adjust or pause operations as needed, said William Ellsworth, an emeritus professor at Stanford University. States could also mandate these protocols. “You have to pay attention to what you’re doing,” Ellsworth said.

And perhaps most importantly, the geothermal businesses will have to show they can compete with the cost of other power sources, with help from the federal government in the form of Inflation Reduction Act tax credits.

The more the technology is deployed, the more the costs might come down, Rice University Associate Professor Daniel Cohan said. Getting the price where the federal government hopes for it to be cost-competitive is “feasible,” Cohan said, “but there’s no guarantee that the industry will get there.”

The federal Department of Energy said this month that $20 billion to $25 billion needed to be invested by 2030 to move toward widespread use.

“We’re all doing something a little bit different,” Sage CEO Cindy Taff said. “One of us is going to have a breakthrough that really commercializes this stuff.”

The daughter of a geophysicist who worked for Mobil, Taff studied mechanical engineering and built a 36-year career at Shell. She worked her way up from production engineer to vice president, managing a team with an annual budget of around $1 billion.

Taff explains how Sage Geosystems uses its Starr County well to store energy. Credit: Verónica Gabriela Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

With freckles and curly hair that falls past her shoulders, Taff said she knew the world wanted to pivot to new energy sources. Her daughter, concerned about climate change, urged her mother to get away from the “dark side” of oil and gas.

When former colleagues from Shell told Taff they were co-founding Sage and invited her to join them, she got excited.

Taff saw that Sage was a nimble company with people she considered some of the smartest in the industry. The geothermal business had a lot of growing to do, like the early days of wind or solar. Her work could have a large impact.

“It was exciting to be working with people that I knew had a sense of urgency and made a difference,” Taff said. “And then, it was exciting to be working for yourself in a way that you can push the agenda.”

So, in 2020, Taff took the leap. Her daughter joined the company too.

Building interest in geothermal 

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska, killing some 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters and 300 harbor seals. In Augusta, Georgia, 10-year-old Jamie Beard was riveted by the news coverage.

“I understood things enough to know that that was not something we wanted,” Beard said.

That experience pushed Beard into environmental activism, starting the next day, when she took a Kleenex box decorated like the ocean to raise money for coral reefs. She painted murals about environmental rights. In college, at Appalachian State University, she organized an Earth Day festival and tied herself to trees on a West Virginia mountaintop to protest workers scraping them away to mine for coal.

Years before Jamie Beard helped launch Sage Geosystems, she was a student at Appalachian State University teaching others how to use solar ovens. Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Beard

Beard went on to study environmental law at Boston University. She represented corporations, telling herself she could make change best from the inside. That proved incorrect. She joined a startup working on technology that could be applied to geothermal drilling.

That’s when her life changed.

Beard read an interview about the huge potential for geothermal power to provide electricity around the world. The interview was with Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Jefferson Tester, who led a team that published a 372-page assessment of the resource for the federal government in 2006.

“The technology needed to advance … but it wasn’t like it had to invent a whole new area because it’s so compatible with what we do with hydrocarbon extraction,” Tester said in an interview with the Texas Tribune. “They drill holes in the ground and they pull fluids out of the ground, whether they’re gas or liquids, and they sell it. Well, that’s what you do for geothermal too.”

Beard read the report over and over.

This is my career, Beard thought.

The history of modern geothermal power went back a century: The world’s first full-scale geothermal power plant started operating in 1913 in Italy. In 1960, Pacific Gas and Electric built the first commercial geothermal power plant in the United States at a spot in Northern California known as “The Geysers.”

In the 1970s, the federal Department of Energy started researching pulling power from what was referred to as hot, dry rock. The country that decade suffered through Arab countries’ embargo on exporting oil to America, causing oil prices to skyrocket. Still, the technology didn’t get far enough for the concept to take off.

The Larderello geothermal power plant, which is the world's oldest, was built in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Enel Green Power

Engineers built geothermal power plants where they could find existing water resources relatively easily, maybe marked by hot springs or fumaroles, which are holes where hot gases and vapors escape from underground, said Lauren Boyd, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s geothermal technologies office. But building new plants got riskier as prime locations got harder to find.

Beard saw opportunity. She knew the oil and gas industry could develop technology quickly. The U.S. ushered in the “shale revolution” as companies drilled horizontally and cracked open rock with hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to extract giant amounts of oil and gas. That technology could be used for geothermal.

Beard, 45, is the type of person who speaks with an energy that rubs off on you. Her hair is cut into an angular bob; she wears artsy glasses. She made giving a TED talk look easy.

Armed with a $1 million Department of Energy grant, Beard moved to the University of Texas at Austin around 2019 to convince people that now was the time to start a geothermal company. She argued that oil and gas experts did not have to be only the villains in the climate change story; they could also be the people who help alleviate it.

Jamie Beard speaks at a SXSW panel titled "Geothermal and the Promise of Clean Energy Abundance" on March 9 in Austin. Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Beard

“Oil and gas people are a gigantic brain trust,” Beard said. “They are a huge asset.”

Beard had a young son. She learned he inherited a rare genetic condition that gave him a life expectancy of 10 or so years. A journalist from Wired who profiled Beard described a woman facing an existential choice: She could let the doom of his fate swallow her, or focus on changing the world.

Beard started by reaching out to industry veterans whom she suspected were retired, golfing and bored. Maybe their grandchildren were after them for being part of the fossil fuel industry that contributes to climate change.

Beard said she spent months talking with people like Lance Cook, who retired from Shell as a vice president. Beard said the reaction she usually got was “it’ll never work,” followed by a phone call a few weeks later that the person was still thinking about it. But Cook decided to jump in, and he became the chief technology officer for a new company named for Beard’s son, Sage.

Chris Anderson, the leader of TED, known for its conferences with TED talks by experts on various topics, invested $16 million through his climate investment fund. Drilling firm Nabors invested $9 million more.

Early successes 

Beard wasn’t the only person who saw the potential of leveraging expertise from the oil and gas industry to develop geothermal in Texas.

Tim Latimer grew up in a city of about 1,000 residents in Central Texas, where he remembers being fascinated by the Discovery Channel show “Build It Bigger” about constructing large projects that impact many lives, such as bridges, tunnels and dams.

Latimer studied mechanical engineering at the University of Tulsa. He wanted a job back in Texas to be near family and friends, so when he graduated in 2012 he went to work on drilling sites while the shale revolution was taking off.

Latimer considered whether he should be working in fossil fuels in a world confronting climate change. But working on rapidly developing technology alongside smart people excited him. Moving into wind or solar didn’t feel right after years studying drilling.

Fervo CEO Tim Latimer at the Fervo Energy office in Houston on March 22. Credit: Mark Felix for the The Texas Tribune

Then came the lightbulb moment. He found the same 2006 geothermal report that inspired Beard. He realized that what he was doing, which included drilling into high-temperature rock in South Texas, presented what he called a “huge opportunity for tech transfer” into geothermal.

Latimer thought the idea was so obvious he could join a geothermal company already doing it. He found none. What if this could change how the world gets energy and no one tried it? he wondered. Like other startup founders, he’s articulate and dreams big. At a conference where some wore suits, he wore sneakers, a button-down and jeans.

Latimer went to Stanford University Graduate School of Business and met a classmate getting a PhD in geothermal research. Together they started Fervo Energy. They headquartered the business in Houston. Their first Houston-based hire had 15 years of experience working for oil and gas companies Hess and BP. Fervo now employs 80 people, about 60% of whom came from oil and gas work.

Fervo’s approach is basically to drill vertically, then use fracking technology to create horizontal cracks in the earth. That way, operators can send water down the well, where it can flow through the small cracks in the rock to heat before coming back up another nearby well.

Two California energy providers have signed contracts to buy power from Fervo. Google also has a financial agreement with them. Oil and gas company Devon Energy Corporation invested $10 million.

Last summer, Fervo ran a 30-day test in 375-degree rock in Nevada. They deemed it a success, and now the company is building a project nearby in Utah, next to where the Department of Energy has sponsored a geothermal field lab. They expect the project will put power mostly onto the California grid in 2026.

Drilling deeper

Back in Houston, in a beige set of warehouses on the south side of town, another company led by former oil and gas experts is taking a third approach.

Henry Phan left a 19-year career in product development at Schlumberger, where his work included designing drilling equipment that could steer sideways, to join a former colleague who launched Quaise Energy. The company focuses on using millimeter waves — which are higher frequency microwaves like the ones used to heat food — to create wells by vaporizing rock.

Henry Phan, vice president of engineering for Quaise Energy, stands with a wave guide that the company uses to direct waves from the surface into the hole they are creating, in Houston on Feb. 15, 2024. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune
First: Employees of Quaise Energy stand next to a repurposed drilling rig that will hold a wave guide. Last: Vaporized basalt rock from testing at Quaise Energy in Houston. Credit: Joseph Bui for The Texas Tribune

Oil and gas equipment begins to fail when temperatures below ground reach around 400 degrees. Drill bits wear down quickly against harder rock and electronics are pushed past their limits. Using millimeter waves would allow operators to “drill” deeper than oil and gas equipment can go — which means reaching hotter rock that could produce more power.

The idea interested Phan, and he thought the physics made sense. Plus, he would work on cutting-edge technology that he thought could be a “big step change for humanity.” Quaise had a lot less bureaucracy than at the giant Schlumberger, where money going into product development seemed to be diminishing. In 2020, he signed on as Quaise’s vice president of engineering. He brought more former colleagues with him.

Quaise aims to be able to drill into 300 to 500 degree rock by 2026, produce steam that can generate electricity by 2028 and go commercial after that. Their investors include Nabors, climate investors Prelude Ventures and billionaire Vinod Khosla.

In early experiments with the technology, they used millimeter waves to “drill” through an eight-foot cylinder of basalt rock, plus samples of 1- to 2-inch-thick basalt. The examples sit on display in their office.

“It’s cool to work on a new product,” Phan said, “but the fact that it can make an impact to … our life and our children’s life and their generation and their kids is monumental. So it’s rewarding from the point of view that we’re working on something that is so impactful if we can make this thing work.”

Disclosure: Google, Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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Major offshore wind projects in New York canceled in latest blow to industry

The decision is another setback to New York’s aspirations to achieve 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and be a hub for the nascent industry in the United States.

ALBANY, New York — New York’s signature offshore wind projects meant to boost confidence in the industry are being scrapped, a major hit to the industry in the state and the nation.The decision is another setback to New York’s aspirations to achieve 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 and be a hub for the nascent industry in the United States. It will also be another challenge for President Joe Biden’s already likely out-of-reach 30 gigawatt goal for offshore wind by 2030.NYSERDA, the state authority in charge of the deals, announced Friday that no final agreements could be reached with the three projects that received provisional awards in October 2023. Those bids were all linked to major supply chain investments by General Electric and a larger turbine it planned to build that was aimed at boosting the region's renewable energy portfolio.“Subsequent to the provisional award announcement, material modifications to projects bid into New York’s third offshore wind solicitation caused technical and commercial complexities between provisional awardees and their partners, resulting in the provisionally awarded parties’ inability to come to terms,” NYSERDA wrote in an announcement.In February, POLITICO's E&E News reported that GE didn't plan to move forward with an 18 megawatt turbine. NYSERDA confirmed that was the main reason no final awards were made. A smaller turbine means a project would need more individual turbine locations to deliver the same power — and the costs would have been higher.NYSERDA had also tentatively awarded $300 million to GE Vernova and LM Wind Power for investments in nacelle and blade manufacturing at new facilities along the Hudson River near Albany. That money will be made available through a new competitive solicitation, according to the authority.“NYSERDA remains committed to advancing New York’s offshore wind industry in pursuit of the state’s Climate Act goals,” spokesperson Kate Muller said in a statement. “Next steps will be announced in the near future.”The authority was already expected to start another round of offshore wind bids and may accelerate those efforts. NYSERDA’s schedule for the offshore wind projects called for contracts to be executed by the end of last month. GE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.It's not the total end of offshore wind in New York but does represent a setback. There are still some projects off the coast of Long Island and New Jersey on the drawing board and one is already operational.The projects that were negotiating contracts are the 1,404 MW Attentive Energy One project being developed by TotalEnergies, Rise Light and Power and Corio Generation; the 1,314 MW Community Offshore Wind project developed by RWE Offshore Renewables and National Grid Ventures; and the 1,314 MW Excelsior Wind developed by Vineyard Offshore with backing from Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.But those would now need to rely on smaller 15.5 MW turbines — which means the developers would have needed to buy more and install more massive underwater foundations to put each turbine atop. As a result, it adds time and labor costs to each project.The unsuccessful solicitation comes after several blows to the industry in the U.S. in the past year, indicating the high costs and regulatory hurdles each project faces — along with the concern over socking utility customers with higher bills to pay for them.New York awarded the three projects after the state Public Service Commission last fall rejected a request for higher prices from other developers. The PSC drew a line in the sand that likely constrained NYSERDA’s negotiations: no price increases for competitively awarded projects.Other early projects canceled their deals after the decision, and similar moves have upended efforts in other states.The state’s utility regulator — publicly backed by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration — has held firm on its policy of limiting rate increases on consumers, even as a transmission line running into New York City that supports the 2030 target faces financial uncertainty.Environmental advocates are alarmed by the challenges facing the industry. Offshore wind is key to reaching New York’s goal of 70 percent renewable energy sources by 2030, along with other longer-term targets. But there is growing evidence that the mandate will be hard to reach.“We are very concerned about not meeting the climate goals,” Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said before NYSERDA’s announcement. “All three of these are in a holding pattern and we need a flight plan."But some environmental groups were optimistic that NYSERDA would be able to stay on track.“I don't think it's going to create a big setback as far as time goes,” said Julie Tighe, the president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “I remain hopeful that we’ll be able to get some more projects online by 2030.”It is possible that some of the project developers might turn their attention to winning awards in New Jersey, where another solicitation is expected later this year.New York also has pending contracts still in the works for the two early projects that were reawarded at significantly higher costs for ratepayers. The two projects are the 810 MW Empire Wind 1 developed by Equinor off the northeast tip of Long Island and the 924 MW Sunrise Wind developed by Orsted and Eversource that is south of New York City.NYSERDA’s schedule calls for those contracts to be finalized by the end of June. Those are expected to be online by late 2026.

Defying Expectations: NASA’s Fermi Sees No Gamma Rays From Nearby Supernova

Observations of SN 2023ixf in 2023 led to surprising findings regarding cosmic ray production by supernovae, with potential implications for understanding cosmic ray origins and...

The 2023 observation of supernova SN 2023ixf in the Pinwheel galaxy provided a unique chance to study cosmic ray production, but the expected gamma rays were not detected by NASA’s Fermi Telescope, indicating much lower energy conversion rates than anticipated. Credit: NASAObservations of SN 2023ixf in 2023 led to surprising findings regarding cosmic ray production by supernovae, with potential implications for understanding cosmic ray origins and acceleration mechanisms.In 2023, a nearby supernova offered astrophysicists an excellent opportunity to test ideas about how these types of explosions boost particles, called cosmic rays, to near light-speed. But surprisingly, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected none of the high-energy gamma-ray light those particles should produce.On May 18, 2023, a supernova erupted in the nearby Pinwheel galaxy (Messier 101), located about 22 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major. The event, named SN 2023ixf, is the most luminous nearby supernova discovered since Fermi launched in 2008. Unanticipated Results From Fermi Telescope“Astrophysicists previously estimated that supernovae convert about 10% of their total energy into cosmic ray acceleration,” said Guillem Martí-Devesa, a researcher at the University of Trieste in Italy. “But we have never observed this process directly. With the new observations of SN 2023ixf, our calculations result in an energy conversion as low as 1% within a few days after the explosion. This doesn’t rule out supernovae as cosmic ray factories, but it does mean we have more to learn about their production.”The paper, led by Martí-Devesa while at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, will appear in a future edition of Astronomy and Astrophysics.VIDEOEven when it doesn’t detect gamma rays, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope helps astronomers learn more about the universe. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight CenterCosmic Rays and Their OriginsTrillions of trillions of cosmic rays collide with Earth’s atmosphere every day. Roughly 90% of them are hydrogen nuclei – or protons – and the remainder are electrons or the nuclei of heavier elements.Scientists have been investigating cosmic ray origins since the early 1900s, but the particles can’t be traced back to their sources. Because they’re electrically charged, cosmic rays change course as they travel to Earth thanks to magnetic fields they encounter.“Gamma rays, however, travel directly to us,” said Elizabeth Hays, the Fermi project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Cosmic rays produce gamma rays when they interact with matter in their environment. Fermi is the most sensitive gamma-ray telescope in orbit, so when it doesn’t detect an expected signal, scientists must explain the absence. Solving that mystery will build a more accurate picture of cosmic ray origins.”The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory’s 48-inch telescope captured this visible-light image of the Pinwheel galaxy (Messier 101) in June 2023. The location of supernova 2023ixf is circled. The observatory, located on Mount Hopkins in Arizona, is operated by the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian. Credit: Hiramatsu et al. 2023/Sebastian Gomez (STScI)Supernovae As Cosmic Ray AcceleratorsAstrophysicists have long suspected supernovae of being top cosmic ray contributors.These explosions occur when a star at least eight times the Sun’s mass runs out of fuel. The core collapses and then rebounds, propelling a shock wave outward through the star. The shock wave accelerates particles, creating cosmic rays. When cosmic rays collide with other matter and light surrounding the star, they generate gamma rays.Supernovae greatly impact a galaxy’s interstellar environment. Their blast waves and expanding cloud of debris may persist for more than 50,000 years. In 2013, Fermi measurements showed that supernova remnants in our own Milky Way galaxy were accelerating cosmic rays, which generated gamma-ray light when they struck interstellar matter. But astronomers say the remnants aren’t producing enough high-energy particles to match scientists’ measurements on Earth.One theory proposes that supernovae may accelerate the most energetic cosmic rays in our galaxy in the first few days and weeks after the initial explosion.But supernovae are rare, occurring only a few times a century in a galaxy like the Milky Way. Out to distances of around 32 million light-years, a supernova occurs, on average, just once a year.After a month of observations, starting when visible light telescopes first saw SN 2023ixf, Fermi had not detected gamma rays.Challenges and Future Research“Unfortunately, seeing no gamma rays doesn’t mean there are no cosmic rays,” said co-author Matthieu Renaud, an astrophysicist at the Montpellier Universe and Particles Laboratory, part of the National Center for Scientific Research in France. “We have to go through all the underlying hypotheses regarding acceleration mechanisms and environmental conditions in order to convert the absence of gamma rays into an upper limit for cosmic ray production.”The researchers propose a few scenarios that may have affected Fermi’s ability to see gamma rays from the event, like the way the explosion distributed debris and the density of material surrounding the star.Fermi’s observations provide the first opportunity to study conditions right after the supernova explosion. Additional observations of SN 2023ixf at other wavelengths, new simulations and models based on this event, and future studies of other young supernovae will help astronomers home in on the mysterious sources of the universe’s cosmic rays.Fermi is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership managed by Goddard. Fermi was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.

Southern Spirit project faces hurdles from local utilities and legislation

Amid legislative and utility pushback, the ambitious Southern Spirit energy project confronts obstacles in its quest to enhance grid connectivity and bolster renewable power in the Southeast.Gautama Mehta reports for Grist.In short:The Southern Spirit project, aimed at linking Texas' power grid to the Southeast, faces opposition from utilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, fearing competition from cheaper electricity.Louisiana legislation may block the project by denying eminent domain for transmission lines that don't primarily serve the state.Despite opposition, the project is seen as a key step in boosting regional power resilience and facilitating renewable energy transmission.Key quote:"We have substantial challenges within markets, within generators, that are trying to stop the building of transmission."— Mark Lauby, chief engineer, North American Electric Reliability CorporationWhy this matters:Texas operates its own independent power grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which covers most of the state. This independence means that when Texas faces power shortages, like during the devastating winter storm in February 2021, it cannot easily import electricity from other grids. Linking grids can facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by balancing variable outputs across a broader network, thus advancing environmental and public health goals.Oil and gas production responsible for $77 billion in annual US health damages.

Amid legislative and utility pushback, the ambitious Southern Spirit energy project confronts obstacles in its quest to enhance grid connectivity and bolster renewable power in the Southeast.Gautama Mehta reports for Grist.In short:The Southern Spirit project, aimed at linking Texas' power grid to the Southeast, faces opposition from utilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, fearing competition from cheaper electricity.Louisiana legislation may block the project by denying eminent domain for transmission lines that don't primarily serve the state.Despite opposition, the project is seen as a key step in boosting regional power resilience and facilitating renewable energy transmission.Key quote:"We have substantial challenges within markets, within generators, that are trying to stop the building of transmission."— Mark Lauby, chief engineer, North American Electric Reliability CorporationWhy this matters:Texas operates its own independent power grid managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which covers most of the state. This independence means that when Texas faces power shortages, like during the devastating winter storm in February 2021, it cannot easily import electricity from other grids. Linking grids can facilitate the integration of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by balancing variable outputs across a broader network, thus advancing environmental and public health goals.Oil and gas production responsible for $77 billion in annual US health damages.

Revolutionizing Energy Storage: Li-CO2 Batteries With Carbon Capture

New technology could lead to batteries that store energy and capture CO2, offering a significant advancement in environmental technology. Efficient and cheap batteries that can...

A groundbreaking advancement in battery technology offers a dual benefit of efficient energy storage and CO2 capture, made possible by a new catalyst development system.New technology could lead to batteries that store energy and capture CO2, offering a significant advancement in environmental technology.Efficient and cheap batteries that can also capture harmful emissions could be right around the corner, thanks to a new system that speeds up the development of catalysts for lithium-CO2 (Li-CO2) batteries.The technology has been developed by the University of Surrey, Imperial College London, and Peking University to address the slow and inefficient methods currently used to produce catalysts for Li-CO2 batteries. In the study, researchers used their tool to test and screen materials like platinum, gold, silver, copper, iron, and nickel to easily investigate whether they would be suitable candidates for developing high-performing Li-CO2 batteries.Dr. Kai Yang, corresponding author of this work, project co-leader and Lecturer from the Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey, explained:“We have created a cutting-edge lab-on-a-chip electrochemical testing platform that can do multiple things at the same time. It helps evaluate electrocatalysts, optimize operation conditions, and study CO2 conversion in high-performance lithium-CO2 batteries. This new method is more cost-effective, efficient, and controllable than traditional ways of making these materials.”Li-CO2 batteries are a promising new type of battery that work by combining lithium and carbon dioxide; they not only store energy effectively but also offer a way to capture CO2, potentially making a dual contribution to the fight against climate change.Dr. Yunlong Zhao, the lead corresponding author of this study and a Senior Lecturer at Imperial College London, the National Physical Laboratory, and visiting academic from the University of Surrey, said:“It is crucial that we develop new negative emissions technologies. Our lab-on-a-chip platform will play a crucial role in advancing this goal. It will not only enhance our understanding of novel batteries, but it can also be applied to other systems like metal-air batteries, fuel cells, and photoelectrochemical cells.“This new tool will enable quick screening of catalysts, studying reaction mechanisms, and practical applications, from nanoscience to cutting-edge carbon removal technologies.”The study has been published by Energy and Environmental Science.Reference: “Developing highly reversible Li–CO2 batteries: from on-chip exploration to practical application” by Manman Wang, Kai Yang, Yuchen Ji, Xiaobin Liao, Guangpeng Zhang, Mateus G. Masteghin, Nianhua Peng, Filipe Richheimer, Huanxin Li, Jianan Wang, Xinhua Liu, Shichun Yang, Enrico Petrucco, Paul Shearing, Fernando A. Castro, S. Ravi P. Silva, Yan Zhao, Feng Pan and Yunlong Zhao, 21 July 2023, Energy & Environmental Science.DOI: 10.1039/D3EE00794D

California derailed its booming rooftop solar buildout. Can it be fixed?

California state Senator Josh Becker is worried that the Golden State is undermining a pillar of its clean energy transition: distributed solar power. Though California has more large-scale solar and battery projects than just about any other state, smaller-scale energy — primarily rooftop solar — has contributed…

California state Senator Josh Becker is worried that the Golden State is undermining a pillar of its clean energy transition: distributed solar power. Though California has more large-scale solar and battery projects than just about any other state, smaller-scale energy — primarily rooftop solar — has contributed nearly as much to its energy transition to date. But over the past year, a string of utility-backed decisions from the California Public Utilities Commission have come ​“dangerously close to discouraging much-needed distributed energy in this state,” Becker, a Democrat, said. That’s why he — and a growing number of California politicians — are proposing legislation to reverse that trend. The first blow to distributed solar was the CPUC’s decision to alter California’s decades-old net-metering regime in ways that have slashed the value of rooftop solar for single-family homes and commercial properties. Two bills introduced this year are taking aim at that policy, which has decimated the state’s once-thriving rooftop solar industry since it went into effect a year ago today. And beyond legislative fixes, a lawsuit seeking to reverse the decision was just granted review by the California Supreme Court. But even more harmful decisions have followed, Becker said. In November, the CPUC ordered changes that will derail the economics of shared-solar programs used by apartment buildings, schools, farms, municipalities and shared commercial properties, he said — a policy he hopes to reverse with legislation he introduced last month. And then, in March, the CPUC proposed policies that would undermine a community solar plan backed by environmental justice organizations, consumer advocates, labor unions and the state’s homebuilding industry. That plan was seen by many solar industry groups as a last chance for California to throw a lifeline to its distributed solar sector, which accounts for nearly half of the state’s nation-leading solar capacity. Taken together, these decisions appear to be leading to a regulatory regime that will prevent distributed solar from continuing to play a role in meeting the state’s clean-energy goals, Becker said in an April interview. “We should be clear, that’s the message we’re sending right now,” he said. ​“With a community solar ruling that’s contrary to what 22 other states are doing, with a ruling that discourages schools and municipalities from being able to self-consume their own solar that they generate — I really think we have to take a step back and say, what are our goals here?” Becker is not the only one asking that question. Solar industry groups, environmental justice organizations, state and local elected officials and other entities are throwing their support behind the various legislative and legal efforts to put the state’s distributed solar industry back on track. The stakes are high, not only because California emits more planet-warming carbon dioxide than most countries, but also because of its position as the nation’s climate leader. It’s common for California climate policy to be exported to other states and even the federal level. California’s new distributed solar regulations have also made life more difficult for the solar industry writ large. They’ve crimped sales for nationwide rooftop solar providers such as Sunrun, Sunnova and SunPower in what’s been by far the country’s biggest rooftop solar market. And they’ve caused even more hardship for the larger number of smaller solar installers in the state. “We’ve heard from a lot of our customers across the industry in California,” said Fox Swim, policy researcher at solar software company Aurora Solar, which tracked a significant hit from the CPUC’s decision in its recently released report on 2023 nationwide solar installation data. ​“There are just a lot of companies hurting, a lot of companies having to cut back on staff, and having to make a lot of hard choices.” The policy push to get California rooftop solar back on track  In February, the first bill to try and right the listing ship of California distributed solar was introduced: AB 2619. The legislation would ​“ensure that incentives are restored for residents who generate clean power for the grid,” according to a statement from Assemblymember Damon Connolly (D), the bill’s author. It would repeal the ​“damaging” decision — commonly known as ​“NEM 3.0” to distinguish it from the state’s two previous net energy metering (NEM) regimes — and force the CPUC to create new rules aimed at keeping rooftop solar growth on the trajectory needed to meet California’s long-range climate goals. Connolley cited the necessity of reversing the economic fallout from the CPUC’s new rules and highlighted the importance of distributed solar in ​“achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045,” the goal set by the state’s landmark clean energy law SB 100. A separate bill, AB 2256, would order the CPUC to restructure its policies by running an independent cost-benefit analysis of the role rooftop and distributed solar can play in achieving the state’s clean energy goals. Authored by Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D) and supported by nonprofit groups including Environment California, the Center for Biological Diversity and Environmental Working Group, AB 2256 would require that the CPUC consider a number of values these groups say were left out of its net-metering analysis, including improved local air and water quality, avoided land use impacts and other ​“non-economic” benefits. California’s big three investor-owned utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, are the primary opponents of these bills. But the legislation also faces pushback from utility ratepayer representatives and some energy policy experts, which back the CPUC’s rooftop solar decision. These groups say that California’s previous policies shifted service costs from customers who had rooftop solar (and therefore much lower monthly bills) to those who didn’t. That’s a major problem, they say, since customers of these utilities already pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country and those rates are set to increase even further. These groups also dispute the solar industry’s claims that the CPUC’s decision is to blame for the drop in solar installations over the past year — or that the industry’s previous pace of growth was healthy for the state’s long-term energy equity and climate goals. They point to large-scale solar, which costs less to build than rooftop solar, as a preferable option. “The rooftop solar market isn’t dying,” Severin Borenstein, head of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, wrote in an April blog post. ​“It is coming down from the 2021-2023 sugar rush when net metering policies combined with rapidly climbing electricity rates, recent power shutoffs and the impending switch from NEM 2.0 to NEM 3.0 to produce growth that simply couldn’t be maintained.” Borenstein argued that, instead, the new policy has simply ​“stepped us back from the recent exponential growth in new systems,” which have led to ​“exponential growth in cost shifts onto other ratepayers.” The dreaded ​“cost shift” argument  Borenstein’s case that California’s previous net-metering rules lead to harmful ​“cost shifts” represents one side of a hotly contested debate that has been raging in regulatory battles across the country. On the other side of the debate, environmental groups, community advocates and energy analysts have argued that utilities have misrepresented the underlying data to counter a set of policies they oppose for other reasons — mostly that utilities can’t make money on rooftop solar. In California, utilities have cited findings from the CPUC’s Public Advocates Office, an independent group tasked with protecting utility customers, that the CPUC’s previous net-metering policies have led to billions of dollars of costs being shifted from solar to non-solar customers. But these cost-shift calculations are flawed, critics say. They argue that CPUC has overestimated the costs that rooftop solar imposes on utility operations and undercounted the societal benefits, as highlighted by Friedman’s recently proposed bill.

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