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Saudi summons energy to unearth geothermal potential

People swim in Iceland's Blue Lagoon hot spring in front of a geothermal power plant. Reykjavik Geothermal is working with Taqa in Saudi Arabia Reuters
People swim in Iceland's Blue Lagoon hot spring in front of a geothermal power plant. Reykjavik Geothermal is working with Taqa in Saudi Arabia
  • Researchers drill well on Red Sea coast
  • Big upfront costs can deter investors
  • Commercial scale ‘unlikely’ before 2030

A Saudi Arabian university has completed drilling a research well as the kingdom steps up efforts to harness its geothermal potential – which industry experts estimate could free up to 1 million barrels of oil a day for export.

The 400m deep observation well was drilled by a team from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and Taqa, a state-backed energy fund, on the Kaust campus around 100km north of Jeddah.

The well on the Red Sea coast was completed a few weeks ago. Researchers will assess the opportunities to harness heat from the Earth’s crust.

“We want to de-risk drilling, reduce the costs and develop technologies to make it economically viable for implementation [of geothermal] along the Red Sea coast,” Thomas Finkbeiner, a professor of energy resources and petroleum engineering at Kaust, tells AGBI.

Although Saudi Arabia is still reliant on its hydrocarbon reserves, it is investing heavily in the green energy transition. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, its renewables capacity increased by more than 200 percent in 2023.

Experts say the kingdom is lagging behind on its ambition to develop geothermal into a viable energy source by the end of the decade, despite it being available around the clock, unlike solar or wind.

When it comes to geothermal, Riyadh is targeting the equivalent of 1GW of capacity – enough to power around 800,000 homes, according to the Carbon Collective – by 2030. In March 2023 it set up Taqa Geothermal Energy, a joint venture with Reykjavik Geothermal from Iceland.

Iceland’s geothermal electricity generation has increased significantly in recent years and accounts for 25 percent of the country’s total production and 66 percent of its primary energy use.

Taqa has previously established a geothermal centre of excellence in Turkey, which also has considerable geothermal potential, and has been involved in drilling wells in the UAE’s Masdar City.

In Saudi Arabia exploration projects are focused on the northern and western regions, particularly along the coast of the Red Sea. Most of these initiatives are being led by universities and research centres.

Industry sources have told AGBI that it is unlikely Saudi Arabia will develop geothermal energy projects to a commercial scale by the end of the decade, given the scant progress made so far.

One energy expert, who asked not to be named, says it can take 10 years to delineate and properly map a geothermal reservoir.

Geothermal is high risk, requiring big upfront expenditure and hampered by a lack of clear regulation in Saudi Arabia, the industry sources say. All this can be offputting to investors, who often end up supporting solar or wind projects instead.

Raid Bukhamseen, senior manager at Taqa, says drilling a geothermal well costs, on average, three times as much as a regular oil and gas well. Expensive specialist facilities need to be built on the surface too.

“Geothermal resources exist in more complex geology when compared to oil and gas, especially in medium and high enthalpy areas,” he says.

Enthalpy, or heat content, is the amount of extractable thermal energy contained in geothermal fluids.

The Red Sea coast is believed to have extensive low-enthalpy reservoirs, which can generate enough power for cooling or desalinating water. This could free up a significant amount of fossil fuel for alternative daily uses.

Low enthalpy entails lower temperatures so does not produce huge amounts of energy, but there is less risk in harnessing it. High enthalpy may produce more energy, but it is more expensive and complicated to access.

In the futuristic giga-project of Neom, in the Tabuk region, in the northeastern part of Saudi Arabia, another research team from King Abdulaziz University has proved the availability of ground heat to generate geothermal energy.

Kaust’s Finkbeiner says other giga-project sites may also have reserves, including AlUla and the islands that form part of Red Sea Global. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned energy giant, has identified and mapped three potential areas on the west coast.

If developed on a commercial scale, geothermal can be used in industrial complexes, remote touristic areas with little land available, and agriculture. “If this is successful, we could scale it,” Finkbeiner says of the Kaust pilot programme.

Geothermal energy can complement solar and wind as it offers a sustainable source of baseload power. Harnessing it requires nearly 90 percent less space than solar farms, Bukhamseen said.

There is momentum behind geothermal in Saudi Arabia, but the timeline is unclear. Funding and clear leadership are needed, but Bukhamseen is optimistic.
“Those major decisions are being taken and steps are being implemented on the ground as we speak,” he says.

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