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How Sologen’s plan to turn abandoned oil and gas wells into geothermal power producers could replace coal power in Texas.

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Students and staff of Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Lab log temperatures at a well site outside Corpus Christi.


The utility’s push to double the South Texas Project nuclear complex was roughly buffeted by issues of high cost and lack of transparency among partners — but it was only iced when Japan’s multi-meltdown Fukushima disaster set the entire nuclear industry reeling.

Today CPS expects to meet future growth through the construction of new natural gas units and continued investment in renewables like solar. But until big strides are made in energy storage, the renewables won’t be able to do the city’s heavy lifting of raising our baseload power, the stuff that runs 24 hours a day no matter if the wind blows or the sun shines.

While Cris Eugster, CPS Energy’s chief sustainability officer, is hopeful that future research and development projects could make solar and wind (especially when paired with better energy management overall) more like reliable baseload energy, he recognizes it’s not there yet. And while geothermal has that coveted consistency on its side, it hasn’t been proven in the field. “It’s consistent from the get-go,” Eugster said, “but it’s not as far along as solar or wind. You can go to a wind farm right now, see it and feel it; you can’t do that with geothermal.”

For that reason, the handful of companies that have come calling in the hopes of securing commitments from CPS to buy their power (the way CPS committed to purchase 200 megawatts a year from the experimental “clean” coal plant to be built outside Odessa) have been turned away.

Smith, however, they’ll be watching with what could be called an interested detachment. Geothermal today is “almost like the venture capital world, and we’re not a venture capital firm,” said Eugster. “It’s very exciting technology, but really it’s something someone has to prove out there first.”

 Smith is not your typical green-energy booster. He’s a businessman. An entrepreneur. He said he was inspired by former mayor Phil Hardberger’s unveiling of Mission Verde at 2009’s State of the City address, not for the chance to clean up the air, or do a good deed, but by the dollars involved. Considering the city’s newly launched sustainability program was calling for massive investment in energy efficiency and solar power, efforts now gaining muscle mass under the leadership of Mayor Julián Castro, Smith remembers thinking: “That’s $2 billion in work and you want to do that in how many years?”

Previously, Smith says he had moved between healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and computers. The “greenest” project he’d tackled before he calculated the potential profits involved in Hardberger’s vision was a propane-powered weed whacker. (Puffing on a cigar inside the Quarry Market’s Club Humidor, he pauses, an eyebrow cocked, as if asking “Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”)

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