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A DRILLER'S FUTURE?

Simon Sergides, of GTD Group, suggests that the escalating climate crisis is delivering new prospects for seasoned drillers to transfer their skills from sectors which are facing inevitable decline, into what is becoming the biggest opportunity for drillers in decades – providing boreholes for ground source heat pump (GSHP) installations.


The threat of diminishing demand for drillers in conventionally lucrative sectors, such as oil and gas, raises significant concerns for those whose livelihoods depend on these industries. However, the climate crisis, while ushering some long-established drilling needs into decline, is simultaneously facilitating the unprecedented rise of a burgeoning industry - the installation of shallow geothermal boreholes. Never before has there been such a lucrative time to consider leveraging your skills to diversify or venture into this industry. Some pundits liken the escalating demand to a gold rush. I see the parallels, especially the unprecedented surge in workforce and specialist equipment demands in this rapidly expanding sector. However, I would argue that the risk factors determining business success stand in stark contrast. Unlike the unpredictable and often unsuccessful hunt for gold — a highly prized resource buried beneath our feet — the extraction of thermal energy offers a far less risky and vastly more abundant opportunity. Perhaps, thermal energy may be an even more valuable and relevant resource right beneath our feet. The key to unlocking this immense reserve? That lies squarely with you, the drillers. Here's why… If there is no borehole drilled, then it is an impossibility to fit a ground source heat pump (GSHP) box or even come close to meeting the ambitious heat pump installation targets. This is the core reason behind the unprecedented demand and the urgent need to exponentially scale drilling production across the US and globally. Governments have received a stark wake-up call, recognising that the shortage of drillers and specialist rigs poses the true bottleneck in achieving their green goals. Consequently, the spotlight is now firmly on the necessity for workforce training to attract and upskill new drillers and transition existing skilled drillers from other sectors. The opportunity is genuinely vast. What was once considered a fringe sector in the drilling community, is now becoming a desirable and preferential choice for drillers seeking to maximise their long-term prospects.


 

If there is no borehole drilled, then it is an impossibility to fit a ground source heat pump

 

Why drill shallow geothermal boreholes ?


The concept is well-established: by drilling multiple shallow geothermal boreholes, typically to depths of between 300 to 800ft, we can install liquid-filled tubes (commonly known as closed loops) to function as heat exchangers. The liquid within these loops circulates at a slow pace, extracting the naturally occurring heat retained in the soil and rocks beneath us. This abundant energy source is then drawn to the surface, providing heating and hot water to buildings all year round, largely unaffected by the cold winter air temperatures above ground. During the hot summer months, the system reverses, cooling the building. The pump removes unwanted heat from the building and transfers it back into the soil and rocks beneath the surface, effectively stockpiling it for later use. You might envision it as a colossal, natural thermos flask that Mother Nature has generously provided. It stores the excess heat from the summer months within the highly insulated earth and rocks, allowing for retrieval of this stored energy on demand for heating water and controlling the building's internal temperature year-round. This system is arguably the greenest and cleanest form of ‘climate control' for a building. Simply set the thermostat to your desired temperature, and the system will maintain that internal room temperature throughout the year — whether in the darkest depths of winter or the scorching intensity of a heatwave.


Change is happening - right now


The global crisis surrounding climate change is accelerating. In July 2023, record temperatures were recorded across the globe, leading to devastating consequences that were extensively covered in international news. Many states reported unprecedented electricity usage as inefficient air conditioners were pushed to their limits, placing enormous strain on an electrical grid already burdened by the switch to electrification as part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewables as the primary energy source.

Given that the heating and cooling of buildings accounted for 40% of total US energy consumption in 20221, it is clear how GSHP solutions can significantly alleviate the pressures on existing and future national electrical grids. This fact has not gone unnoticed by governments and legislators, who are rewriting the rule books as they recognise the critical role of expanding GSHP infrastructure on residential, commercial and utility scales. There is a monumental shift in sustainable energy infrastructure strategies which emphasises the importance of expanding drilling capacity. The US government made significant changes to its legislation just over a year ago, which is excellent news for all shallow geothermal drillers. How, so? The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 amended the definition of renewable energy to include thermal energy and changed the word generated to produced, thereby dismissing the argument that geothermal technology does not generate power and is therefore not renewable energy. Notably, the updated Act also stated: "…any energy consumption that is avoided through the use of geothermal energy shall be considered to be renewable energy produced". This makes the installation of a closed-loop heat exchanger a renewable thermal asset (RTA). The keyword here is asset. In the world of business and finance, assets attract investments. This classification as an asset opens up vast new opportunities for investments and funding, further fuelling the industry's expansion and growth. States like California, Massachusetts and New York have emerged as leaders in geothermal adoption, driven by progressive policies and a strong commitment to renewable energy. In June 2023, The NY Senate passed new geothermal legislation, which removes antiquated regulations that have been unfairly equating geothermal systems at depths beyond 500ft with oil and gas drilling. This positive change will garner greater demand for geothermal heat pump (GSHP) drilling services, particularly in densely populated urban settings, boosting the industry by sidestepping previous constraints and bureaucratic hurdles. However, if you look a little closer at the bill there is something far more confidence-inspiring about the future of the market for drillers, it states: "The climate action council's final scoping plan recognised the electrification of buildings - particularly through the installation of closed-loop geothermal heating and cooling systems - as a key strategy to achieve the widespread decarbonisation of buildings that is necessary to achieve the climate leadership and community protection act goals." Closed-loop geothermal is specifically called out as a key strategy to deliver the climate goals, which emphasises the requisite need to drill far more boreholes. Ironically, on reflection I truly believe the only hole you will find in any GSHP strategy is one that is absolutely necessary, and here lies the massive scale of the drilling revolution ahead of us.


The big opportunity


This defining moment in time resembles a mini industrial revolution, with drillers fortuitously finding themselves at the right place, at the right time, and on the right side of the argument for a more sustainable future through drilling. The explosive growth potential has unveiled new business opportunities. Many industry observers would historically say that price is the biggest barrier to GSHP adoption, but there has been a silent revolution in drilling equipment capability, productivity and affordability, which has made shallow geothermal drilling a far more attractive and profitable business opportunity. Seasoned drillers now have the chance to adopt a more entrepreneurial stance, even becoming owner/operators of their own rigs. With the backing of specialist equipment manufacturers like GTD (www.gtd-drilling.com), this prospect is far less daunting than it might initially appear, making it easier than ever to enter the industry, by offering efficient, user-friendly, safe, and highly capable equipment packages, which creates a compelling proposition. Combined with finance options available for both start-ups and growing GSHP drilling fleets, your entry or expansion into this industry is more accessible and feasible than ever. Remarkably, we are also hearing reports of start-ups, which, despite having no prior drilling experience but equipped with a solid background in heavy equipment operation, are successfully establishing and scaling GSHP drilling businesses. If this trend continues and becomes commonplace, it will undoubtedly underscore the immense potential this industry offers.


Case study: The Netflix Studio Project, Albuquerque


Netflix is forging ahead with an ambitious expansion of its film studios based in the Mesa del Sol development in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The media giant is investing US$1 billion to transform this location into one of the most high-tech and sustainable film production facilities in North America. The project, due for completion in 2024, includes the integration of a ground source geothermal system, requiring nearly 700 boreholes drilled to a depth of 320ft.



Using a GTD GT35 Rig a Two-Man Team Drilled an Average of Six Boreholes per Eight-Hour Working Day

Despite the project's large scale, the boreholes were delivered successfully within the set project timeline and budget by QC Geothermal Inc, all achieved at breakneck speed with just a two-man team and a single rig. The secret to success was unquestionably productivity. The two-man team managed to maintain a remarkable pace, consistently drilling, installing, and grouting up to six boreholes per eight-hour working day. For those unfamiliar with the typical productivity rates in shallow geothermal drilling, this accomplishment of six fully completed boreholes is exceptional. To provide some perspective, it would not be uncommon to expect merely one or two completed holes per day. The outstanding efficiencies achieved can be credited to the drilling capabilities of the GTD rig used on the project combined with the drilling expertise of Joe Soukup and his right-hand man, Mario. Watching them at work is genuinely awe-inspiring; their expertise and operational methods make the drilling process appear incredibly smooth and effortless, effectively elevating industry standards to a new level.

To truly appreciate their drilling prowess, there is nothing like watching them in action and a time-lapse video capturing a typical day's work on the Netflix project can be seen here.

The two-person team efficiently drills six holes, installs loops, grouts, and even preps for a seventh hole within the day. The lead driller, Joe, expertly handles all the downward drilling processes independently without needing to physically handle a single drill rod, a testament to the revolutionary rod handling system of the GT Series rigs.

The rig's user-friendly operation allows the driller to also oversee and manage the auxiliary equipment like the mud recycling unit simultaneously. Once the desired depth is reached, the lead driller can extract the drill string independently, again without the need to physically handle any drill rods. This not only enhances efficiency but also reduces driller fatigue and the risk of injury associated with repeated manual handling of drill rods. For those with a keen eye, you will notice Mario, the second-man, operating a remote control unit on the rod rack system during the extraction phase. You may wonder why when the lead driller could handle this task alone. The response once again revolves around the theme of efficiency: it allows for even quicker extraction speeds. While the lead driller is dedicated to the string extraction process, the task of hands-free loading of the rods back into the rack is smoothly transferred to the second-man.

Every aspect of the rig has been optimised for efficiency, ease of use, and productivity - watch the seamless movements tracking to each new borehole location within minutes.


Fun Fact:


The Netflix studios served as headquarters for the Breaking Bad television show crew, as well as for a number of Hollywood films. The coordinates at which Breaking Bad character Walter White buries his money in the season five episode Buried —34°59′12″N 106°36′31″W—point to the Albuquerque Studios. Got a story? Email: duncan.moore@aspermont.com

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