It’s still a long shot, not technologically as much as politically, but more voices are beginning to speak out about the potential for geothermal heat and power generation in Alberta, a province that’s heavily dependent on coal and where the oil sands rely on clean gas to produce the dirtiest of liquid petro products.
The Pembina Institute came out with a report this month that explores the many ways Alberta could transition away from coal and toward more sustainable and cleaner forms of electricity generation. I was most impressed with the section on geothermal, given that in Canada there hasn’t been much interest in this renewable source of power, with the exception of yours truly and a dozen or so industry and academic folks who are trying to draw attention to this immense opportunity.
According to the Pembina report, “very little information has been gathered on the size of Alberta’s geothermal potential,” however “research data that is available shows that the potential is enormous.”
Pembina says there is an estimated 21 billion gigawatt-hours of energy released every year below the surface of Alberta at depths of less than 5 km. “Even with the conservation assumption that only 0.5 per cent of this potential is recoverable, it represents the equivalent of roughly 14 million megawatts of generating capacity.” That, it goes on the point out, is more than 1,100 times the current total installed generating capacity of Alberta. This doesn’t even include depths greater than 5 km, which could be tapped using enhanced or “engineered” geothermal systems (EGS).
When Pembina explores the barriers to implementation, we get explanations such as “lack of awareness” and “uncertain resource” because of insufficient research and data. There is also the issue of uncertain costs, not so much with conventional geothermal but with the use of EGS. Another barrier is the challenges of drilling to depths of several kilometres.
The first two barriers, of course, shouldn’t be there in the first place. There’s no reason why we can’t raise awareness and conduct more research around this promising form of renewable energy. Sadly, it’s not on the radar of federal politicians (though, to their credit, some bureacrats are working away in the background).
I met up with Canadian Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt last week, and when I mentioned geothermal as an opportunity in Alberta she was a deer in headlights. Meanwhile, her colleague Jim Prentice, environment minister, spent much of a speech last week in Calgary downplaying the potential of renewables and talking up the need to “do no harm” against companies in the oil patch. Let me repeat: This guy is environment minister.
On the other two barriers — uncertain costs and drilling challenges — Pembina had this to say:
Costs are no less certain than CCS which has already received significant public investments both provincially and federally. The potentially vast scale of geothermal resources in Alberta warrants significant consideration in this same vein.
While wells of 1 or 2 kilometers deep are the norm in Alberta, many wells in Alberta are drilled to depths of 4 km and some as deep as 7 km. Alberta has significant experience in drilling and experimenting with new drilling techniques. Existing research programs should shift from conventional petroleum drilling to geothermal. Research dollars currently allocated to developing drilling capability in the oil patch should be reallocated to applying existing knowledge to geothermal applications.
It did, however, estimate the cost at $70 per megawatt-hour on the assumption 10,000 MW of geothermal was developed in the province. That’s slightly cheaper than its estimates for wind, which is variable. Geothermal, on the other hand, is more valuable as a baseload power source.
Bottom line: Let’s stop ignoring this amazing resource.