E XIT THE LIFT on the top floor of the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and the mechanical beeps and whirrs of a model offshore oil rig welcome you to an exhibit entirely devoted to energy. Explore the riveting history of drill bits or how fracking works, all conspicuously sponsored by Exxon, Chevron or another oil major. Amid all the cheerleading for oil and gas is a small section dedicated to renewable energy. But in a few years, perhaps a whole wall will be devoted to a different type of drilling—for heat instead of hydrocarbons.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed by Congress last year, offers lots of federal subsidies for established low-carbon technologies, such as solar and wind, but it also attempts to give nascent ones a boost. Geothermal-energy enthusiasts point out that hot rocks can provide baseload power when the sun and wind are away. It is cleaner than gas and requires less land than wind and solar farms. This, then, is a test case for whether public investment can jolt a new industry into being.
America has used geothermal energy since the 1800s, by harnessing heat from hot springs and geysers. Geothermal is plentiful in places where the movement of tectonic plates has pushed magma closer to the Earth’s surface, such as along the Ring of Fire, which encircles the Pacific Ocean. Underground reservoirs of steam or hot water are most common, and closest to the surface, in the western states. The vast majority of geothermal-power production happens in Nevada and California. In these plants, which have been operating for decades, hot water is pumped from the reservoirs to create steam, which rotates a turbine. Yet even though America is the world leader in geothermal generation, it accounts for less than 1% of the country’s power production.