July 2020
The Untapped Potential of Geothermal in the MENA Region

Geothermal energy is heat derived from the subsurface of the earth contained in rocks and fluids. This heat can be directly used to cool or heat a building and like most energy generating systems, it can be harnessed to produce steam which in turn can run turbines to produce electricity. The infinite heat stored in the earth’s core makes geothermal a renewable energy source seeing as it will not run out.

In the last few years, geothermal power has become increasingly more preferable due to its minimal land impact, relative quietness, and ability to produce significantly fewer air emissions — geothermal plants emit 0.1% and 0.46% of the total CO2 emissions arising from natural gas and oil extraction respectively. As encapsulated by National Geographic, geothermal energy is nonpareil because “unlike solar and wind energy, geothermal energy is always available, 365 days a year. It’s also relatively inexpensive; savings from direct use can be as much as 80 percent over fossil fuels.” Current geothermal systems are however limited to geographically ideal places along tectonic plates which tend to have existing fractures and naturally occurring water circulation at depth.

One of the latest and biggest advancements in the geothermal industry is the Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS), a process that involves improving rock permeability up to a mile deep by injecting a fluid into the rock to create minute fractures and pore spaces between mineral grains. EGS is very similar to hydraulic fracking commonly used in oil and gas recovery as millions of gallons of water infused with chemicals are injected into wells at high pressure. Much of the controversy that surrounds hydraulic fracking such as groundwater contamination and induced seismic activities, therefore, casts a shadow on EGS.

Eden GeoTech is developing a Pulsed Electric Reservoir Stimulation (PERS) technology that could enhance geothermal energy recovery by logistically and feasibly reducing water-use. PERS utilizes electrical energy to rapidly heat a reservoir, induce thermal stresses, and ultimately cause the rock to fail. As a result, PERS can improve the economics of resources in areas previously rendered impractical for geothermal activity due to water scarcity and limited permeability.

The implementation of EGS could potentially increase production in the US 40-fold, representing 10% of the overall U.S. electric capacity today. Regions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are taking drastic steps to address the need for more energy sustainable solutions by opting for geothermal energy. For instance, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the largest oil-producing country in the world, has previously not given ample attention to renewable energy sources and has just recently realized its rich abundance in various geological feautres such as hot springs to the south and volcanic activity to the west of the country. Power production in the western region alone, including Ain Al Harrah’s 26.99 MWt reservoir potential, is expected to contribute to 9% of KSA’s 54 GW renewable energy prospective goal.

KSA has recognized this need for an energy shift as outlined in its plan, Vision 2030, to fully operate on renewable and low carbon energy forms by 2030.

As of 2016, KSA was consuming 3.9 million barrels of oil per day (b/d). If the growth rate of national oil consumption continues, local demand is expected to double in a decade. With price reform and combined use of renewables, this number could fall by 1.5–2 million b/d. KSA has recognized this need for an energy shift as outlined in its plan, Vision 2030, to fully operate on renewable and low carbon energy forms by 2030. This vision is propagated by the government climate change regulations, volatile fossil fuel prices, finite nature of fossil fuels, rise in greenhouse gas emissions, high capacity of geothermal power, the cost-effectiveness of geothermal energy, reduction in pollution by geothermal power plants, and lastly increased energy demand. On the other hand, the barriers hindering geothermal power production in KSA include the huge investment required for power plants, the potential hazardous environmental impact, and the growing market of wind and solar energy.

A majority of KSA’s geothermal power is currently used in desalination plants and if it were to be rationed to cooling systems, it could reduce residential energy consumption by up to 70%. With the expansion of geothermal use, KSA could potentially have strong energy and food security and simultaneously be able to help other Gulf and Red Sea countries meet their freshwater demands. Moreover, as part of Vision 2030, it economically behooves KSA to switch to renewable energy sources as it will cut domestic fuel consumption freeing more oil and gas for exportation.

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