Here’s my latest Clean Break column, in which I continue my crusade to have political leaders, media and the general public take seriously the option of geothermal power generation in Canada. In this column, I quote from a new 322-page study from the Geological Survey of Canada, which calls the country’s geothermal development potential enormous but cites a lack of data and research, which creates too much uncertainty and risk for the development community. The government researchers make several recommendations, including establishment of a national geothermal database, more public investment in research and development, support for pilot projects, and government programs that help reduce early exploration risks for developers. It’s ridiculous that Canada is not yet exploiting this resources to help offset emissions from coal-fired generation, particularly in the west. We are, after all, a country that excels at the art of deep-well drilling and resource exploration. It’s not like we lack the skills.
September 16, 2011
It doesn’t seem to matter that geothermal energy is clean and abundantly available in Canada, or that projects can be cheaper to develop, safer to operate and more reliable than a nuclear plant.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is determined to open up Canada’s north to economic development, and this is exactly where the country’s geothermal resources are hottest and least expensive to develop.
The federal government is also making it more difficult to build coal plants through regulations that, once they kick in around 2015, will hit coal-dependent Alberta, the hardest. Alberta, rich in geothermal potential, could do a lot to clean up its electricity mix and offset emissions from the oil sands by embracing this well-established technology.
None of that seems to matter.
For some reason, the heat beneath our feet that can be used to generate emission-free power 24 hours a day doesn’t get any love, even though the world’s top energy experts who attended the Equinox Summit in Waterloo this past June declared geothermal one of the most important energy options for replacing coal-fired generation.
So what gives? Why does Canada remain the only nation on the Pacific Ring of Fire to not have a commercial geothermal power plant up and running? Why does Canada have no formal program to pursue this opportunity? Why aren’t we pushing this more?
Lack of awareness, both within the media and among our political leaders, may be part of the problem. There may also be a bit of confusion about the technology. Many people, for instance, consider geothermal energy strictly as a heating and cooling technology for homes and buildings.
One of the biggest issues is a lack of reliable data about the temperature, location and geology of the potential geothermal resource. A recent and well-overdue report from the Geological Survey of Canada made this point clear.
“We estimate that there are sufficient data to characterize, to some degree, geothermal potential of only 40 per cent of Canada’s landmass,” according to the comprehensive, 322-page document, which was quietly released in July.
“Most of Canada has no geothermal information, and in many regions where information exists, the data are insufficient to characterize geothermal resources.”
Without quality data – the kind of data the government has historically supplied the oil and gas and mining sectors—no developer is going to take on the risks and high costs associated with early resource exploration. And accessing affordable capital to pursue such endeavours? Forget about it.
This has to change if any industry is to get off the ground in Canada. It’s why these researchers are calling for the creation of a national geothermal database that could be accessed by developers to help reduce exploration risk.
They also want funding that would support more field, laboratory and computer modeling work, which could fill the data void. This might include development of a network of research wells.
I would go a step further and make it mandatory for the oil and gas sectors to collect and share detailed temperature data for the wells they drill.
The opportunity, particularly in British Columbia, Alberta and the Northwest Territories, but potentially across all of Canada, can’t be overstated. “Canada’s in-place geothermal power exceeds one million times Canada’s current electrical consumption,” according to the report.
It does acknowledge that only a small fraction of this resource is close enough to transmission lines and population centres to be economically tapped, at least in the near term.
That said, new technologies that allow for deeper drilling, less expensive techniques for fracturing rock, and higher-efficiency heat exchange and generation gear could significantly open up the market, the same way horizontal drilling and “fracking” technologies have led to a boom in shale gas production.
With these new technologies and approaches, “calculations suggest as few as 100 projects could meet Canada’s energy needs,” they write, also pointing out that the cost of delivering geothermal power to market “is projected to decline and be competitive with coal-fired production within the next 15 years.”
Remember, this isn’t an exaggerated report coming from an environmental group. These are the recommendations of seasoned government scientists working within Natural Resources Canada.
And these scientists appreciate that getting to where we need to go – or as Wayne Gretzky would put it, “going to where the puck is going to be”—will require more than just research.
We need pilot projects. We need a regulatory framework that will create certainty for the market. We need government to share some of the early exploration risk, as it has with other industries.
But this won’t happen unless the public – and the media – become more interested. Until then, our political leaders will remain cold on this hot clean energy resource.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.