Building the Manhattan Project of Energy: An Interview with Doug Hollett
Climate change, widely regarded as one of the greatest challenges of our time, is also uniquely difficult to tackle. It is everyone and no one’s problem. Given the fundamental and institutional shifts that need to occur to address the crisis and its daunting array of impacts, individuals, even as a collective, can do little more than chip away at the edges of the problem. Even individual companies and institutions, no matter how large acting alone will not move the needle. And currently, there are few mechanisms and incentives to encourage companies to convene and tackle the climate change problems together.
Governments are uniquely suited to drive solutions to big problems such as climate change, and not necessarily in the politically prickly ways we hear about on the news. In the US, while carbon tax and cap-and-trade regimes are hot button topics in the conversation about climate change mitigation, they are politically fraught and slow. But the US government has impactful tools in its arsenal that can be deployed quickly, will be naturally bi-partisan, and leverage industry and entrepreneurship to drive breakthrough outcomes. Even the government though, must convene and collaborate if we want to really move the needle in the next decade. A new Manhattan Project with the goal of solving energy is in order.
To explore ways the US government can press the gas on the future of baseload geothermal energy, I talked with Doug Hollett, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Fossil Energy, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Renewable Power, and Director of the Geothermal Technologies Office at the US Department of Energy. Doug is also a 30-year veteran of the oil and gas industry, where he last served in executive roles at Marathon Oil. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JB: What about geothermal energy catches your interest?
DH: It’s the unique combination of big potential, and big technical challenges. I love that it can be both baseload and demand responsive, and is clean and low carbon. In other words, at scale, it could be a game-changer. And as a geologist – well, it’s technically just super interesting.
JB: Drawing from your experience in the DOE, what role do you think the government agencies should play in developing and incentivizing future geothermal energy concepts?
DH: We’ve seen a big evolution in geothermal in the past handful of years. 1st, new government research programs such as FORGE and Play Fairway Analysis, designed to identify more resource, lower risk, and bring new technologies quickly to the table. 2nd, new players and entrants, in many cases from outside the traditional industry. I hope to see this continue, in particular with increased engagement by the oil and gas industry.
Government should take on the challenges that are too big or expensive for the private sector. Equally, government should not be in the business of supporting fully viable sectors. You manage this through careful scoped and targeted funding coupled with the appropriate policy tools to get a fledging sector off the ground. It’s important too that we not prematurely down-select technologies or concepts for funding. We need to focus on solving the overarching problem – “how do we broadly enable geothermal energy” and let researchers and engineers take it from there.
There are also unnecessary barriers which should be addressed. These include immediately removing redundant or inappropriately lengthy regulatory processes, and making sure that policy tools are purpose-fit for the sector. It takes way longer to permit, drill, test and ultimately operationalize a large geothermal resource, compared to an oil resource of similar depth, and until this type of glaring discrepancy is fixed, the sector will underperform.
There is also a lot of room for policy leadership in geothermal energy, and some interesting possibilities for incentives. We sometimes get hung up on policy tools so let’s be honest – every energy sector has had them at some point, and some retain them long after their designed purpose. Incentives should be used to kick start and accelerate new technologies into market adoption, and then gradually phased away. So I think currently we should be asking the question – how can we incentivize and speed geothermal development to be like oil and gas development in Texas, while as the same time offering the same incentives and subsidies that more established renewables currently enjoy.
JB: What opportunities do you see for government agencies to work together in collaborations to push new geothermal energy concepts forward?
DH: I think we see some of this already, especially in great collaborations between the USGS and DOE; there could be a lot more. But let’s think bigger – what if there was a top-level commitment and requirement for DOE, DOI, DOA, NSF, NASA, DOD, OSTP, Treasury etc. to work together to build the future of baseload geothermal energy, a naturally cross-cutting concept that implicates everything from national security to the future of space travel. The agencies could actively collaborate, drive appropriations, find synergies, and share expertise. It would be awesome to designate a single lead agency for a national initiative, rather than force the sector to navigate through multiple organizations.
JB: What would the ideal cross-agency initiative look like? Are there precedent examples to draw from?
DH: This may sound a bit heretical, but big change requires both new concepts and operating models that are crazy enough that they can be successful. What does that mean? I would love to see government funding for big subsurface and geoscience concepts be focused around the challenges and problem sets themselves. To me it makes far less sense to have numerous commodity-based offices across the government, when we could have highly targeted grand challenges (“rockshot” comes to mind but that’s a little cheesy) with aggressive scientific and technology targets, and cross-entity interdisciplinary teams charged with making big things happen. The challenges we seek to address across multiple agencies are frequently similar. For instance, DOE, DOD and NASA are all after high temperature materials at the moment – for drilling faster and cheaper, hypersonics capabilities and space exploration respectively. What if we all got together on a high temperature materials grand challenge? It would move the needle significantly, and the same research and development (and funding) would have broad impact across multiple sectors.
Who does work like this? I see DARPA, NASA, and ARPA-E as great examples of problem focused organizations. You identify the challenge, scope it out in detail, undertake the required work in a specific timeline. When you’re done, hand it off and move on to the next challenge – without the rigid constraints of permanent “offices”. If it doesn’t work – you have the ability to quickly close it down and move on. You could make government funding very nimble and fast-paced.
Is this disruptive – yes – but it would also entice the best people from their respective sectors to get involved. I would love to see more individuals from the private sector get involved in government service and initiatives – and this would help.
JB: Drawing from your time at the Office of Fossil Energy and in industry, what are your thoughts about the fossil fuel industry’s potential role as geothermal energy developers and producers?
DH: I think the fossil energy sector is key to advancing geothermal growth and enabling the future of geothermal energy. The oil and gas industry has the technical skills, innovative mindset, and the vast financial and operational resources to do things at scale.
Five years ago, when I talked about new and exciting opportunities in geothermal to colleagues in oil and gas – overall they were not interested. They had too much on their plate with new shale plays, acquiring acreage and big growth targets. DOE was just getting the new geothermal initiatives underway.
The world has changed. Energy transition is now a widely discussed goal, and we’ve seen dramatic growth in renewables (and increasing engagement by the oil and gas industry in these spaces). Investors and communities are clamoring for accountability on environmental and climate measures, and there are vocal divestment movements. Companies have realized that they need to be part of the energy transition solution, and many have made aggressive and very public carbon neutrality commitments just in the past few months. We’re seeing interest in geothermal from the oil and gas industry that was unheard of just a few years ago, and that makes good business sense. Geothermal enables these companies to leverage their core competencies, infrastructure, expertise, and even workforce to build a clean energy future.
I do see tremendous opportunity – even a responsibility - to leverage oil and gas expertise, innovation and financial strength. Whether it’s drilling, HPHT sensors, operations, materials, even exploration and resource characterization, it’s what oil and gas does every day. And it’s similar to the reason that as wind moves offshore to turbines on fixed jackets and progressing to large floating offshore turbines – the foundational skills are in the oil and gas sector. So the opportunity and perhaps the irony, could be that one of the most critical sectors in an effective energy transition to cleaner energy sources, especially geothermal – will be the oil and gas sector itself.