There’s enough deep geothermal to power all of Canada. So why can’t we try just a bit?

How much power generation in Canada comes from geothermal energy? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

How much of Canada could be powered by geothermal power? All of it. Many times over.

There is, of course, a catch or two. Cost is one. Location is another, because not all the best sites are near population centres. Still, as two new studies from Canada’s top geothermal researchers show, there’s a heck of a lot of geothermal resource to work with if we tried. And as I point out in my Clean Break column this morning, geothermal could be just as significant a contributor to Canada’s power needs in 20 year2 or 30 years as hydroelectric power is today. Again, that’s if we tried.

Stephen Grasby, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and co-author Jacek Majorowicz, an Alberta-based geothermal consultant, have come out with two studies looking at enhanced geothermal system (EGS) potential in Canada. One study will appear online this month in the Journal of Geophysics and Engineering (I was expecting it out by now). It looks at the overall potential of EGS in Canada. Another just published study, this one in the journal Natural Resources Research, looks specifically at high-potential regions where EGS development would offer the biggest bang for the buck. “Results show areas with significant EGS potential in northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and southern Northwest Territories related to high heat flow and thermal blanketing of thick sedimentary cover,” they wrote. “Estimated installation costs in 2008 dollars are under $2 million per megawatt.”

That’s about $6 billion for 3,000 megawatts — more than competitive with nuclear, not just with respect to capital costs, but also operational and maintenance costs. Also, none of the high costs associated with storing spent fuel indefinitely or with decommissioning old plants. This figure, of course, is for developing the most promising EGS projects. Cost will rise depending on location, rock conditions, availability of an outside water source, and depth of required drilling. Still, the studies make clear the opportunities are immense.  The Geophysics and Engineering study, for example, said projects could be developed right across the country, including parts of Ontario, if you drill deep enough. Over time, as drilling costs fall and expertise of EGS climbs, this could happen one day.

“At 10 kilometres we can expect EGS temperatures in the 150 to 200 degrees C range across most of Canada, except some areas of the Canadian shield,” wrote Grasby and Majorowicz. “Given the widespread distribution of geothermal energy, and the high energy content, the potential geothermal resource in Canada is significant,” they concluded.

Sure, there’s risk to heading in this direction, just as there was risk of investing in the early days of the oil sands or nuclear industry. I would argue there’s much more risk drilling for oil offshore in the deepest ocean waters. For example, an accident could happen and you could end up with the equivalent of an oil volcano erupting kilometres below the surface. (Okay, now I’m being facetious).

The fact remains: geothermal power is baseload, it’s clean, it’s plentiful, and it can be done using proven drilling and rock fracturing techniques in Alberta’s oil patch. The Canadian Geothermal Association is targeting development of 5,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2015 using conventional techniques. Imagine, if we started doing that development now in parallel with EGS research and development, what we could accomplish by 2030? It could be possible to wean Alberta entirely off coal, for one, and it would put us in a good position as we move to electrify the transportation sector.

These two Canadian studies come three years after the release of a groundbreaking U.S. study led by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research suggested EGS in the United States could realistically supply about 100,000 megawatts of power generation capacity by 2050, assuming the proper policies and R&D investments were committed. The MIT study didn’t cover Canada, but several experts who participated in that study said their conclusions could also apply to the Great White North. Still, it’s nice to have our own data — and this is exactly what Grasby and Majorowicz have given us.

Canada, clearly, needs a national geothermal development strategy — and it needs one now.

Time to beat the drum.

7 thoughts on “There’s enough deep geothermal to power all of Canada. So why can’t we try just a bit?”

  1. Is the water, as steam, once the heat energy has been wrung out of it, condensed so to be recycled within such a system? Water in places like Alberta especially is a precious community lifeblood, it would be a waste to see it being boiled away. Also water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas, scientists holding that if we force the atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations to the point where the greenhouse effect of water vapour begins to take over, it alone is enough to feed the increasing temperature spiral beyond the point of no return, even if we cut all our conventional greenhouse gas emissions to their pre-industrial levels! If they can simply capture and cycle that water, then they will have provided another wedge to help hold the window open.

  2. This makes enormous sense.
    What are the costs compared to Hydro with Wind?
    Are there any heat depletion concerns in the area of the well over time?

  3. Water vapour is a green house gas, but it does not have a long residency time in the atmosphere, unlike carbon dioxide. So the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is not related at all to how much would additionally be evaporated by any human scheme.

  4. So its impact might be consequential only if the planet were already approaching the water vapour tipping point noted above, through forcing by other means?

  5. One more study- once more the resistance to change, even good, makes-all-kind-of-sense change. Ah well! Let’s hope this study is just one more pebble at the top of the hill being nudged down.

  6. JP Warren, notwithstanding that I’ve not heard tell of a particular water vapour controlled tipping point, there is no chance at all that humans putting a little more water vapour in the atmosphere would be a factor in exceeding it. Evaporation on oceans, lakes and plant and animal respiration all produce water far exceeding anything humans would ever produce by evaporation or even combustion of fossil fuels.

    Of more concern than any supposed world wide climate effects from evaporation by humans would just be use in geothermal power of fresh water resources, which are stretched in many locations.

    There are well explained reasons why the worry with regard to climate is long lived Carbon Dioxide not water vapour.

  7. I said that the climate forcing due to our carbon and methane emissions might cause this, not that we need not worry with regard to carbon or methane emissions! I amplify the call for emission reductions.
    There is an article on the importance of water vapour release culminating in runaway greenhouse effect here:
    The thrust of this came from the 2004 Planet In Focus Toronto documentary film, The Venus Theory, which compares Earth with our neighbouring planet Venus, and I think Mars too, showing how extreme and rapid climate change can be. Other info on this can be found by googling Venus Climate Change. I would assume that were we close to the point where water vapour began to drive temperature increase we would be well past the point of habitability anyway, but I am not a climate scientist. My concern is that we consider erring on the side of caution, especially when we are contemplating releasing heat from within the planet, along with vapourizing water -both of which may add to, incrementally, the already dangerous situation.

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