Cleantech Startup Might Be Too Much R&D for VCs

Capital is tight for cleantech, and it’s not just because of the economy — investors also are being asked to back some pretty long-term technologies, and not everyone wants to be first to assume the risk.

Consider Potter Drilling, which has the potential to solve a very big problem. With enough financial backing, it could supply enough clean energy to equal 2800 times the current consumption of the U.S. — if it can drill enough 10-kilometer-deep holes to extract the heat that’s trapped in the rocks below the earth’s surface. Every town could have its own hole, says CEO Jared Potter — and it’s own little power plant.

It’s a tantalizing picture, but drilling a well 30,000 feet (9.1 kilometers) deep costs over $200 million with today’s technology. Asking investors to bet on a vision has been tough.

“Lots of VCs don’t like R&D and they especially don’t like R,” Potter said. “Several of the big guys were interested, but they wanted to see a hole first.”

Potter Drilling plans to dispense with drill bits, which may wear out after pushing through only 200 feet of hard rock, and use superheated water to drill holes.

This process, called hydrothermal spallation, was invented by Potter’s father Bob, a scientist who was once on the staff of the Manhattan Project and still works at Potter Drilling, even though he’s 89 years old.

Jared Potter thinks hydrothermal spallation can ultimately cut the cost of drilling through hard rock by a factor of 10. Last year, when the company was in the infamous “valley of death” — with a promising technology but not enough money to develop a proof-of-concept to show that it worked — one VC came through. invested $4 million.

Google has a big self-interest in finding technologies that cut energy costs because of its own energy- sucking data centers. It’s also invested in wind and solar companies and in another geothermal drilling company — AltaRock Energy, which was forced to suspend its own drilling project this month after it ran into technical problems with the rocks.

Potter Drilling could ultimately help AltaRock, Potter said, but right now the companies are operating separately. Potter Drilling is focused on Australia, which is a better market because it’s farther along than the U.S. on geothermal drilling.

It’s also going back out to raise money, and Potter hopes for the best. Field testing is planned for next year, and production for the year after.