What is 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy?

March 21, 2022

There’s a term, an expression, that’s gaining ground in renewable energy discussions, and it’s something everyone in geothermal needs to be talking about with everyone outside our community. 

That term is “24/7 Carbon-free Energy” and it is the perfect platform to promote geothermal energy.  It makes room for ALL of geothermal, whether it’s power generation, district geothermaling or ground-source home geothermal pumps. 

And it’s a perfect foundation for promoting public and private support for geothermal research, funding advances in drilling technology, EGS and AGS (aka Closed-loop Geothermal).  They all expand where geothermal can serve the critical need for clean energy, but only if they have the level of investment and public policy support enjoyed by other clean power sources.   

Joining the 24/7 Carbon-free Energy parade is our best shot at getting that support. 

What is 24/7 Carbon-free energy? 

Sounds obvious – carbon-free energy motivates everyone working on the climate crisis, renewables, and certainly the geothermal community.  How is it a new idea? 

24/7 CFE is a response to the problematic way renewable energy is being discussed today.  The details are different, but the basic model is generally the same around the world. 

Organizations and municipalities that claim “100% powered by renewables” today generally aren’t.  They buy clean power equivalent to their annual consumption.  Energy Attributes Certificates (RECs in the US) are used to track and prove the purchase of renewable energy. 

It sounds we could all buy 100% renewables and save the planet.  But this is simply not true today.  What “100% renewables” buyers buy is not what they get. 

The reality is that the power delivered to factories, homes and businesses today is from a mix of clean sources and fossil fuel plants.  Natural gas and coal plants still supply significant energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.  So those consumers aren’t actually “100% powered by renewables” at all. 

There is no doubt that 100% renewables matching drove investment in clean energy around the world.  It was a good thing, but now we need to go further.  And the next step creates the perfect place to talk about geothermal. 

The new goal is to produce, consume and track 100% clean energy every hour of every day of the year.  We must get there if we want to eliminate fossil fuels.  Obvious, no? 

24/7 carbon-free electricity procurement matches a buyer’s electricity demand every hour of the year with clean generation.  And that means two things: availability of clean, firm power 24/7, and a way to track that clean energy purchases match consumption. 

Who made it a hot topic?

Google really started the discussion, with a 2019 article describing their thinking about clean data center energy.  Here’s an example of the carbon maps they used to analyze their energy supply:

Even if they buy 100% renewables, they are actually using fossil fuels.  Since then many other large corporates have joined the parade, and the UN has launched an effort to drive systemic change in support of SDG7, to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” 

24/7 Tracking  

EnergyTag is an initiative to move beyond renewable energy certificates to hourly time-stamped clean energy certificates.  Over 100 global companies have joined the EnergyTag initiative, an effort that could lead to higher certificate prices when other renewables are less available.  This encourages investment in technologies that generate clean power 24/7.  Like geothermal. 

Why is 24/7 CFE important to us? 

The goals of this initiative line up perfectly with the goals of the geothermal community. 

Geothermal has been in the shadow of other renewables for too long and has (in my opinion) been competing on price with both intermittent solar and inexpensive fossil fuels.  With no premium for being 24/7, or for being clean. 

The 24/7 Carbon-free Energy initiative would properly value geothermal as the only clean, firm renewable energy source that can operate 24/7.  A nighttime MWh generated in Winter would, and should, be worth more than one generated at noon in Summer. 

If the goal is to get off fossil fuels for power, then geothermal is the perfect answer. 

From a 2021 Princeton University ZEROLab working paper on the impact of 24/7 CFE in the US, with my added emphasis:

“The wind and solar exclusively procured by 100% annual matching portfolios have relatively low capacity substitution value, displacing only 12.5 MW per 100 MW of capacity deployed in California (capacity substitution falls as system-wide renewable energy penetration increases). 

Clean firm generation in 24/7 portfolios (e.g. geothermal, nuclear, natural gas w/CCS, zero-carbon fuel plants) displaces natural gas generating capacity on a one-for-one basis”  

Most importantly, from the same report: 

This study finds that 24/7 carbon-free electricity enables deeper emissions reductions and deeper transformation of the electricity sector than 100% annual matching by driving early deployment of advanced clean firm and long-duration energy storage technologies .

Driving early deployment of advanced clean firm technologies is exactly what the geothermal industry needs.  And there are now major industry and public sector players promoting the message for us. 

Can we make it about more than electric power generation? 

Yes!  The 24/7 Carbon-free Energy initiative was focused on electric power generation because that is important to the tech giants and utilities spearheading it.  But 24/7 CFE includes removing fossil fuels from geothermaling systems, which in Europe account for something like half of all energy consumption.  Electrification can reduce emissions, but there is enormous value in the avoided cost of using district geothermaling and ground source geothermal pump technology without big increases in generation and transmission.  Everything geothermal is 24/7 CFE! 

Is 24/7 Carbon-free Energy the same as Net-Zero? 

Not quite.  They have the same important goal to reduce mankind’s CO2 emissions, but one takes a more direct path to clean power.  Net-zero is about compensating for emissions by taking actions that offset them, like planting trees to offset burning coal.  Carbon-free means eliminating the emission of planet-warming gases from energy production at the source. 

What can we do as individuals? 

Learn more by reading the reports I linked in this article and googling “24/7 Carbon-free Energy.”  Read about it and become an advocate! 

Use the term on social media, in your corporate communications, on your web sites, and in your one-on-one conversations with anyone connected to energy production, financing, procurement, policy or consumption.  That’s everyone you know!.  Every consumer is also a potential influencer of public opinion and a potential advocate for geothermal. 

Encourage your organization to sign on to the UN’s 24/7 Carbon-free Energy Compact.  A handful of geothermal companies are already supporters, and I would love to see the list dominated by geothermal industry members. 

Let’s talk about geothermal’ s unique ability to decarbonize energy and save humanity - 24/7. 

Peter Tait Bio 

Peter Tait is a California tech executive and marketer turned renewable energy advocate. After a lifetime spent next to the geothermal community, he has joined the movement to advocate for geothermal energy as a long-term solution to the climate crisis.

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