Why Google.org’s enhanced geothermal investment is good for Canada

Google.org’s $10.25 million (U.S.) investments in AltaRock Energy Inc. and Potter Drilling Inc. brings much-needed attention to the potential of enhanced geothermal systems, and the goal of tapping geothermal heat resources almost anywhere on the plant. AltaRock is trying to perfect the process of fracturing rock, an ambitious engineering feat that would allow geothermal developers to create the necessary conditions for a geothermal power plant almost anywhere electricity is demanded. Potter is adapting drilling techiques from the oil and gas industry through the development of new drilling technology that uses high-pressure fluid to bore through hard rock.

If enhanced geothermal, or EGS, could be made economical the implications are enormous. We’re talking baseload, emission-free electricity on a massive scale that, over time, could eliminate the need for coal-fired or nuclear power plants. It would also silence the critics of renewables who says wind and solar are inadequate because of their intermittancy. Sure, perhaps all this won’t happen in a lifetime, but it bodes well for future generations who can look forward to ample supplies of solar, wind, and geothermal power and their support of electric vehicles.

Google, the world’s most popular Internet brand, isn’t breaking the bank with this investment. In fact, AltaRock announced yesterday that Google’s investment, through its philanthropic arm Google.org, is only part of a $26.25 million financing round involving Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Khosla Ventures and two other VCs. But what Google brings to this technology is much-needed public awareness. Google can make EGS look relevant and cool, as it has done for plug-in electrics and solar thermal. Google has reach. Google has clout. Google, in addition to making money, is also on a mission to drive change.

Drill for heat, not oil, is what Google is essentially saying with this investment.

So, how does Google’s investment benefit Canada? Well, to my American friends, it probably comes as no surprise that my oil-sands-obsessed country is asleep at the switch on the geothermal front. We stopped collecting data on geothermal resources back in the 1980s, and currently have zero — Z-E-R-O — power production in the country from geothermal. It’s not like there isn’t potential in British Columbia and Alberta, which shares similar geography to geothermal-rich states in the U.S. west. And as AltaRock founder Susan Petty tells me, EGS could unlock potential in eastern provinces like Ontario, just as geothermal power plants could one day sprout up in New York or Michigan where a history of natural gas drilling has shown some high-temperature anomolies.

Google Earth has a geothermal mapping application that gives a sense of the potential in these northeastern states. Drill up to 9.5 kilometres in Michigan and 2 per cent recovery of geothermal resources will get you 7,721 megawatts. In New York the yield is 10,156 megawatts. That’s at least a couple of big nuclear plants.

Again, it may take a couple of decades to make this depth of drilling economical, but bring it on.

Google Earth, as expected, doesn’t show the potential in Canada. That’s because we don’t have the data. And herein lies the Canadian angle to Google.org’s announcement: The search giant has given Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab about $500,000 “to improve understanding of the size and distribution of geothermal energy resources and to update geothermal mapping of North America.”

The italics are my emphasis. I confirmed with the folks at Google.org that indeed the university will be mapping all of North America, including Canada. This effort is something that should be funded and overseen by the Canadian government, but since that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (we don’t even have our own monthly inventory of oil, natural gas and gasoline production/stockpiles), it’s good to see somebody else filling the vacuum. So thank you Google. When the data does become available, it will be much easier to sell the idea of geothermal development in Canada to both the public and our politicians.

It’s so silly, really, that a U.S. company is paying a U.S. university to do the work that should be funded and conducted by Canadians. Is there not any agency in Canada, any university, willing to fund and take on this analysis at home? Can we not find $500,000 (far less is probably required) to conduct an analysis of our own back yard?

I issue the challenge.

15 thoughts on “Why Google.org’s enhanced geothermal investment is good for Canada”

  1. What ever happened to investigative journalism? This is very transparent green washing by Google.

    Kit P

  2. That’s a nonsense comment. Investigative journalism? What do you expect — some expose on Google and its evil attemps to fool the world? It is what it is: an investment. Not sure how exactly this is greenwashing. Google isn’t trying to sell a product based on its energy efficiency or greenness. As I mentioned in the post, it’s an investment that brings much-needed awareness to the technology and its potential. Skepticism is important, but it must be well placed.

  3. This is a silly comment- on two levels- first you impugn Tyler’s journalistic ehtics, which are unfounded- and you use the now ubiquitous ‘green washing’ phrase too easily, without offering any reasoning behind it. I do not always agree with Google (their deal with mainland China comes to mind), but what they are doing environmentally is great, both in terms of their own campus, and in their investments- and these are investments, not just charity. They are, after all, a public company, and I am amazed they are allowed to do even this much. Most Public companies just will not, or can not, make investments with an eye to the environment. Google should be applauded- hopefully this will encourage more investment from them and other Companies who see Google reap the benefits, if only from a grateful public who can appreciate any Social Stewardship displayed from corporations, especially now-a-days in our ‘do anything to raise the stock for THIS QUARTER’ mentallity. Okay- enough raving for the week;-) (and this is from a (mostly) Republican!)

  4. Great article and great blog.

    Greenwashing? I don’t think so.

    One point of clarification: Potter Drilling is not simply adapting O&G techniques to Geothermal drilling, they are (unavoidable pun) breaking entirely new ground. Very exciting stuff.

  5. Tyler, if you want to be a journalist you may want to be less gullible and more skeptical especially if you care about the environment. Did Tyler spend any time investigating my claim or did he immediately launch an unfounded personal attack? Sorry if I impugn the ethics of journalists.

    So Tyler, go to the Google web site and see if they do not pick projects that are the most loony technology.

  6. Investigating your claim? What claim — that Google is greenwashing? Hmmm… that would appear to be a subjective claim. Either you’re an unreasonable skeptic like yourself, or a realist who understands that ALL profit-minded companies seek a little love from their green campaigns and investments.

    I have looked at all of Google’s investments in this area and, in my view, they’re all worthy of this kind of support. More precisely related to my blog post, I commend Google for this investment — particularly the money going to Southern Methodist University — because it benefits Canada.

    Greenwashing to me is trying to sell a product as green that isn’t green. It’s about lying to the public. It’s about feel-good but misleading advertising. It’s not about companies investing in companies or granting money to projects that could, as momentum builds, lead to change in the marketplace.

  7. First off, let me give credit where credit is due. I do not come to CLEAN BREAK by accident. I like the point of view generally. I would never have bothered to issue a challenge about investigative journalism to anyone at the NYTs.

    Second, I agree about the the money going to Southern Methodist University.

    Third, I somewhat agree with:

    “Greenwashing to me is trying to sell a product as green that isn’t green. It’s about lying to the public. It’s about feel-good but misleading advertising.”

    The fact that it is not transparent to Tyler is troubling. What ever happened to investigative journalism?

    So what is good energy related journalism.

    I get many news articles daily about energy. I work in the R&D end of the electricity generating industry with my favorite being dairy farm biomass and biomass related to forest heath. Since I just finished working on a Canadian proposal for my company, I have restricted myself from commenting on related topics.

    At the same time as Google’s press release, a geothermal industry association has a press release where I learned there is about 4000 MWe of legitimate geothermal under development. This is an amazing story and nobody is talking about that.

    It is transparent, Google’s purpose is not produce clean energy, it is to impress the gullible. When you look at the technologies Google selects, the loonier the better. Loony is more interesting unless your goal is too accomplish something like ‘as momentum builds, lead to change in the marketplace’.

    Google product is a search engine. Information management systems are one the fastest growing areas of new electricity demand. Google is lying to the public or to be fair they are not very good at updating their web pages.

    So Tyler, find out how Google used green energy in 2007 as they claimed. Tell me which dairy farms in Brazil and Mexico they invested in. Tell my why the technologies they have selected are ‘breaktrhous’ and not crackpot.

    Tell me why so many journalists plagiarized the Google press release and failed to talk about the great story of geothermal.

  8. For one, if you’ve ever read my articles in the Toronto Star, you’ll learn I’m a great supporter of geothermal, of all types, and am probably the only reporter in Canada that writes about it so frequently and push for more support of the technology.

    Second, my story in the Star about Google’s investment mentions clearly the current amount of conventional geothermal and the 4,000 MW in the pipeline and the lack of attention to the potential in B.C. and Alberta. But being from Ontario, excuse me for being selfish for wanting to see enhanced geothermal actually work. Conventional geothermal isn’t possible in my province, so yes, I’m putting great hope on EGS and the possibility one day of seeing a geothermal power plant in Ontario that displaces the use of coal or the need for a new nuclear plant.

    Based on your reasoning, anybody with money should invest in the low-hanging fruit — waste energy recovery, anaerobic digesters on farms, conservation, etc… The problem with that is that there’d been no money invested in the less ripe fruit higher up in the tree. Google’s investment, and others investing in this space, should be welcomed because you’ll never find anybody in Canada’s ultraconservative banking community investing in this stuff. Why should Bill Gates, who could sit back from his Microsoft riches and do nothing, invest in new aids breakthroughs and Malaria prevention programs when he could be putting all his money into IT? Your reasoning is flawed, and your use of the term “investigative journalism” is misplaced. Not everything written by a reporter, or blogger for that matter, need be “investigative.”

    So let me get this straight: You’re calling investments in plug-in hybrid vehicles, solar thermal and PV technology, efficient computer and data centres, and now enhanced geothermal all “crackpot”?

    I’m hoping you’re just rubbing me the wrong way for entertainment value, because your igorance is shocking.

  9. As I have long suspected, journalists are not very good at reading. Google is engaging in transparent greenwashing. Google is making claims about making renewable energy cheaper than coal. Google is investing in loons. Not need to infer anything.

    Now my reasoning does not apply to ‘anybody’ nor have I suggested any renewable energy companies are ‘crackpot’ other than the ones Google invested insignificant sums.

    Since Tyler’s only demonstrated competence on energy matters is the ability to use a word processor to cut and paste a Google press release into his byline, I am not too worried about statements like ‘because your igorance is shocking.’

  10. Tyler, can you comment on why a fair number of the companies doing geothermal development in the United States are Canadian? Among this group are Nevada Geothermal, Sierra Geothermal and newcomer Magma Energy (U.S.) Corp., which has Vancouver, B.C., management.

    This last company paid $10.2 million for 12 of the 35 geothermal leases the U.S. government auctioned off earlier this month in Nevada.

    Also, Polaris, another Canadian company, is developing a project in Central America.

    Impressive showing, for not having any domestic development.

  11. It’s strange, isn’t it? I can’t speak for all of them, but the CEO of Sierra Geothermal said it’s because there is a lot of built-up geothermal expertise in Canada but companies are forced to look elsewhere because the Canadian industry lacks support for local projects. We have a well-established oil and gas sector dependent on geologists and geoscientists, and universities that churn out these experts. I imagine, but can’t say for sure, that many of the folks who are with geothermal companies got their feet wet in the oil sector. But honestly, I haven’t a clue.

    I imagine it’s also because geothermal exploration and development is similar in many ways to mining and oil/gas exploration and development, both of which Canada excels at. Huge upfront costs, lots of upfront risk, but a big payoff once you strike gold, oil or heat — take your pick.

  12. There are many who recognize the potential of this amazing resource (our planet’s heat) and are working hard to bring high temperature geothermal energy to Canada, including all the members of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA)
    http://www.cangea.ca has a great deal of information about news, events and activities about the geothermal industry in Canada and abroad and for the first time in over a decade, Canada/CanGEA will be giving a country update at the Geothermal Resource Council’s general meeting in Reno (October 2008).

    Tyler, thank you for all your quality reporting on the subject and increasing awareness for geothermal energy.

  13. The Green Party of Canada’s policy document states that they would help out industry with a “well funded R&D program” for EGS geothermal. (Part 2, Section D)

  14. Hello,
    I”m the Executive Director of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) and along with my colleague, Craig Dunn (CanGEA Membership and Outreach Director) am inviting anyone who wants to support geothermal electricity in Canada to join CanGEA. We are currently an all volunteer association (since there are no megawatts of geothermal electricity in Canada, there isn’t the industry cashflow to support a full time staff) as we have yet to gain the funding of the federal government.
    Please visit our website to learn more about how you can help bring geothermal energy to Canada.


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