Swedish technology could make geothermal as mainstream as wind and solar

Climeon units in action.
Climeon units in action.
Image: Climeon
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Geothermal power is the best of both worlds. It is flexible, like natural-gas power, providing energy whenever needed. And it’s green, like wind and solar power, producing almost no emissions.

Current technology, however, limits its applications. Large geothermal power plants depend on accessing very hot water, which can only be recovered in small regions around the planet. That’s why places with volcanoes, like Iceland and Indonesia, are able to use large amounts of geothermal energy, but others like France or the UK aren’t.

The Swedish company Climeon claims it can make geothermal power as accessible as wind and solar. Its technology can make use of low-temperature heat, which opens up economically viable geothermal power to much more of the world. And Climeon now seems poised to scale up beyond the five countries it operates in today, after the Bill Gates-backed fund Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) said on March 6 that it will provide $12.5 million in funding.

Image: Climeon

The price of electricity produced using Climeon’s technology varies based on factors like the size of the project and access to the heat source. In some cases, Climeon’s electricity-generating units have provided electricity for €40 ($45) per MWh, according to Joachim Karthäuser, the company’s chief technology officer. For context, that’s about the low end of costs for wind or solar power in Europe.

Climeon can offer such low prices because it provides its solution in a modular form. Each unit is approximately 8 cubic meters (about 280 cubic ft) and can provide about 150 kW of power, enough to power 150 European homes continuously. Depending on the customer’s use, Climeon simply installs more or less units. Each unit contains heat exchangers, which transfer heat from underneath the earth, and convert that energy to turn a custom-designed turbine that generates electricity.

The term “geothermal” refers to drawing heat from underneath the Earth. But Climeon’s units can use heat from other sources, too. For example, the units have been deployed in steel factories, where water used for cooling hot metal is otherwise cooled and discarded. At about 90°C (194°F), however, it is hot enough to power Climeon’s technology. That’s a big deal, because Climeon’s technology creates a revenue source for these industries that didn’t previously exist, cuts the total energy consumed, and also reduces total emissions.

Climeon was founded in 2011 and went public in 2017. It’s valued at nearly €400 million ($450 million). It has already executed €60 million worth of projects, and the company says it has confirmed future orders for another €80 million.

BEV’s cash injection isn’t going directly to Climeon. It’s going to Baseload Capital, a company that finances and develops projects for Climeon. The Swedish company has found that many steel plants are interested in its technology, but don’t want to own the power plant. Baseload Capital helps in such cases by owning and operating Climeon’s units, while charging steel plants for the electricity produced through long-term contracts.

BEV’s investment criteria is that a technology, when scaled up, should be capable of cutting as much as 500 million metric tons of greenhouse gases annually. Between low-temperature geothermal and waste heat, Climeon is filling a new niche in carbon-free electricity generation that didn’t exist a decade ago, and which seems to have significant potential in improving the chances of success in the global race to zero emissions.