Backstories: Fervo Energy

Cyclotron Road’s fellows are creating the future of clean energy, advanced manufacturing, and electronics. In this new series, Backstories, we are tracing the decisions and inflection points that landed them here.

Tim Latimer’s and Jack Norbeck’s paths intersected at Stanford, where they earned an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in energy resources engineering, respectively. While at Stanford, Jack had helped pioneer a new approach to extracting geothermal energy—a method (called mixed-mechanism stimulation) that draws upon the same technology driving the shale revolution in the United States. (While mixed-mechanism stimulation has the potential to greatly increase the amount of energy produced from geothermal wells, the approach has never been attempted in practice.) Before beginning grad school, where he studied the geothermal industry and decided he wanted to found a company, Tim worked in the oil and gas industry as a drilling engineer. The pair share a strong conviction that the geothermal energy industry has not reached its potential to provide clean energy in the United States—or beyond—so they co-founded Fervo Energy to test that thesis.

Tim, when did you start to think about energy as a career?
I grew up in a small town in central Texas, called Riesel. When I was in middle school, they proposed building an enormous coal-fired power plant in our community. It was pretty divisive. A lot of people said “Look at the tax revenue. Look at the jobs.” And they were totally right. But there were protests, too. What was this going to do to our water quality and air emissions?

Tim Latimer, during a research trip focused on international geothermal energy policy, in Geysir, Iceland.

Ultimately, they built the plant. It created a lot of jobs and tax revenue. All the positive things came true — our tiny town was able to upgrade streets, the high school teachers got raises — but so did the negative things. You can always hear the turbines running from my parents’ house, even though they live five miles from the plant. You can definitely tell the difference in water quality. It is the perfect microcosm of how energy can have really great positive impacts but there are clear trade-offs. From then on, energy was of interest to me.

Jack, were you drawn to earth science as a kid, making volcano models for the science fair and all that?
No, not at all. But in terms of studying science, I was in 9th grade and taking intro to physics and one day my teacher took me aside and said “you need to teach all of your friends to bring them up to speed.” He put that on me and recognized that in me. That spurred me on.

Jack Norbeck in Yellowstone National Park, during a summer internship he spent with the geothermal group at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

I chose civil engineering because that’s the noble type, right? You want to give back to society. I chose a track called engineering for developing communities. It was a lot of fun but I really didn’t do that well in any of my classes. I’d get Cs and Bs. But toward the end, I randomly took a few geotechnical classes and I did super well in those. I just really liked it a lot. That propelled me toward geotechnical engineering.

Tim, what do you think society at large misunderstands about energy?
I didn’t know where energy came from until they built a coal-fired power plant in my town and I could see it from my front door. And then it was hard to ignore. The average person doesn’t understand the complexity of the energy system. In the US, we are very fortunate that for the vast majority of time, we flip a switch and a light comes on. It’s great that transmission has evolved to a point where the environmental impacts aren’t around cities or around where people live but the downside is that people don’t think about where it comes from. People could really benefit from understanding how hard it is to keep this system running and how hard it is to transition to a new way that’s totally different to how we’ve done it for the past 100 years, which was by burning fossil fuels. It’s not a trivial thing.

What led you guys, ultimately, to take the plunge and found Fervo Energy? 
[Jack] The approach that Tim and I are pursuing is radically different than what’s been tried in the past and challenges the legacy thinking on enhanced geothermal system design. So, in some ways I don’t think it would happen if we didn’t do it. The only way we’re really going to prove out this technology is to do a test at scale and it works or it doesn’t. And so, our goal right now is to prove it out, for once and for all, in as short a time-span as possible. If we are successful, it would open up an entirely new industry, really, and we’d be leading the way. And that would be really exciting, rewarding, validating, all of those.

Tim Latimer, left, at a drilling site in Texas; Jack Norbeck, right, at The Geysers geothermal field in California. Prior to founding Fervo, Tim worked as a drilling engineer in the oil and gas industry, as well as an energy consultant. Prior to graduate school, Jack spent time working at The Geysers in Northern Calif., the world’s largest geothermal field. “It’s a huge operation and, in my opinion, an engineering marvel,” he says.