Tag Archives: geothermal

A perfect marriage of geothermal and mining

Geothermal developers often struggle to make their projects economically viable, while mining companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get social license for new projects.

Given these two market challenges, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is taking a closer look at the idea of recovering minerals from the hot brines that geothermal power plants pump out of the ground. These mineral-rich fluids contain a variety of rare earth elements and other valuable metals, but at conventional geothermal plants the only thing that gets extracted today is the heat.

A wasted opportunity? That’s what the DOE thinks. In summer 2014, the department committed more than $4 million to nine geothermal projects aimed at recovering both heat and minerals from brines. Work on those projects started in October, with results expected by fall 2016 or earlier.

“This is effectively ‘solution mining by nature’, and minerals dissolved in these fluids represent potential resources,” according to a DOE paper presented in January at a geothermal energy workshop at Stanford University.

For geothermal developers, added revenues from harvested minerals represent a way to move projects forward that might otherwise lack a business case – for example, if the heat resource at a particular site isn’t quite high enough. For mining companies, geothermal mineral recovery represents a sustainable path forward for an industry under pressure to reduce its environmental footprint.

“This is the future of mining,” said Gary Billingsley, a director with Saskatoon-based Star Minerals Group, a partner in one of the DOE-funded projects. “It’s a natural step in the evolution of mining, and certainly something I’m pretty keen on.”

No such research is being funded by the Canadian government, despite the country’s vast mineral resources and efforts by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) to raise awareness of the opportunity.

“We are delighted that Star Minerals received DOE support for their innovation, but what can the Canadian, provincial and territorial governments do to create these opportunities at home with our own world class resources?” said CanGEA chair Alison Thompson.

Star is working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL), the University of Oregon, the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and consultancy Barr Engineering on the testing of advanced sorbent materials that can separate certain minerals from brine flows.

The two-year project will look specifically at ways to extract rare earth elements and precious metals. The sorbents already show promise based on preliminary tests conducted by PNNL, according to the DOE.

The sorbent is, in essence, a designer molecule attached to a substrate. The molecule has an affinity for grabbing specific metals out of the fluid that flows over it. It’s not an entirely new activity – the mining industry has been using a similar approach with what’s called “solution mining” for many years.

The innovation, explained Billingsley, is being able to strip those metals off the molecules at the kind of flow rates, volumes and low mineral concentrations characteristic of a geothermal power plant.

Star Minerals is particularly interested in rare earth elements such as dysprosium, a name derived from a Greek word that means “hard to get.” It’s one of several rare earth metals used to create permanent magnet alloys for use in electric vehicles, wind turbines and other green technologies. China dominates the market, so finding new domestic sources has grown in importance.

“If you’ve been in the industry for as long as we have, which is about 40 years, there are getting to be fewer and fewer places to mine, and fewer places to look for these particular types of metal,” Billingsley said. “To us, it’s a lot better if you can target recovering them from waste streams or geothermal brines or oil-field brines. It makes a lot more sense.”


It’s a message that Thompson of CanGEA has been sending to the mining industry over the past year. By working together, geothermal developers and mining companies can help each other out, she said. The association recently released a chemical analysis report showing the best places in western and northern Canada to mine for both heat and minerals. “It’s hard to get companies to take it seriously,” Thompson added.

One seven-year-old company that has taken it seriously is California-based Simbol, often considered the poster child of geothermal mineral recovery. Operating in the state’s Imperial Valley, it has partnered with several geothermal power producers, which after extracting heat from hot brine flow have agreed to let Simbol extract lithium, manganese and zinc compounds from the fluids before they’re injected back into the ground.

Based on the operations of a pilot plant between 2011 and 2014, Simbol knows its process works – at least for producing high-purity lithium carbonate, an essential ingredient of lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars – but efforts to break ground on a large-scale commercial plant this year have reportedly stalled.

Last February, it was reported that Simbol – which was one of the company’s that received DOE research funding last fall – had dismissed most of the employees working at its demonstration plant. It was a sign, some observers said, that the company is having a difficult time raising capital for its commercial plant, which at full production capacity is designed to produce enough lithium for more than a million electric cars.

Simbol co-founder Luka Erceg, who was chief executive before leaving in early 2013, said he has completely severed ties with the company but continues to believe in the larger mission.

“I’ve always been bullish on mineral extraction from brines,” he said. “This is clearly an area with a lot of potential.”

If it can be made to work with geothermal brines, the DOE believes the approach can also be used with fluids that are co-produced with oil and gas operations.

Ontario leads Canada with installation of geothermal heat pump or “geo-exchange” systems, but residential lags commercial market

My latest Clean Break column reviews some fresh data on Canada’s geothermal heat pump or “geo-exchange” market. In a nutshell, Ontario is leading the provincial pack, commercial installations are thriving, the residential sector isn’t getting enough support, and cheap natural gas may be hurting sales.


Tyler Hamilton

Wind and solar technologies may hog the spotlight (and subsidies) in Ontario, but behind the scene geo-exchange heating and cooling systems are being quietly deployed by the thousands across the province every year.

In fact, Ontario dominates when it comes to deploying these systems, according to a just released national report from the Canadian GeoExchange Coalition, a non-profit organization representing the industry.

The province saw more than 7,000 geothermal heat pump units installed in 2010. This is down from more than 9,000 in each of 2009 and 2008, but far higher than next-best ranking Quebec and British Columbia, which have only installed between 1,000 and 2,000 units annually between 2008 and 2010.

Put another way, Ontario represents nearly two-thirds of the Canadian market in 2010.

Heat pumps are the core part of a geo-exchange system. These devices transfer thermal energy from a warm place — the “source” — to a cooler place — the “sink” — via ethanol-filled plastic tubing laid two metres or deeper underground.

In the winter, the source tends to be the ground (which holds heat from the sun) and the sink is the inside of a building. The system works in reverse in the summer. Heat is carried from a building and dumped into a cooler underground sink.

The ethanol or “working fluid” inside the plastic tubing is what absorbs and carries the heat to its destination.

It has been about 60 years since the first system of this kind was installed in Canada. Credit for that effort goes to Frank Hooper, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, who as a university lecturer in the late 1940s worked with the former Ontario Hydro to equip a house in Port Credit with its own geothermal heating and cooling system.

Hooper was fascinated with the efficiency of such systems. Rather than make heat by burning fuel or creating electrical resistance in metal wires, Hooper realized that it made more sense and required less energy to simply shift already existing heat around.

Some electricity is required to run a geo-exchange system, but, in the case of heating, more than two-thirds of the thermal energy that is delivered comes from the ground. This is why the most efficient geo-exchange systems are as much as 50 per cent more efficient than the best natural gas furnaces and more than 75 per cent more efficient than oil furnaces.

“I was enthusiastic about its potential,” Hooper recalled in a chat we had last year. “I could see, in my mind, streets full of houses using heat pumps. But I can’t say Canadians came rushing to replace their heating systems with this.”

At the time, it made little economic sense. Electricity and fossil fuels (coal at the time) were so inexpensive that it wasn’t worthwhile to make the switch. Indeed, the technology only started to gain traction 10 years ago as hydro bills and oil prices kept rising.

In 2000, for example, there were about 1,000 heat pump units installed cross Canada. That figure rose to nearly 6,000 in 2006 and spiked to a high of 16,000 just three years later.

Significant rebates from both the Ontario and federal governments helped give a boost to geo-exchange system sales in the province, but it remains a hard sell for homeowners and building owners, which are enjoying historically low natural gas prices.

Of all units sold between 2008 and 2010 in Ontario, 79 per cent displaced the use of fuel oil and electricity — only 6 per cent displaced natural gas.

Ontario has since discontinued its rebate and the federal government is poised to do the same, so it remains unclear how steady the growth will be in 2012 and beyond, absent new policies or programs.

“The residential market has definitely shrunk,” says Stanley Reitsma, president of Caledonia, Ont.-based Geosource Energy Inc. “But the commercial market in Ontario is a different story. It’s still strong.”

Geosource has been busy installing systems in midrise and highrise buildings. It’s not fuelled by incentives. Instead developers are increasingly seeing the long-term financial and environmental benefits of moving in this direction.

Changes to the province’s building code in 2011 that require buildings to be 25 per cent more efficient has further boosted interest in the technology.

It’s the savings that come from cooling, not heating, that are proving most attractive to large building owners, says Reitsma. “Heating costs (from natural gas) are small compared to cooling costs (from electricity).”

Meanwhile, more building developers are choosing to play the role of energy supplier. They install the geo-exchange systems and sell the resulting heat or cool air to the building owner or tenant under fixed-priced, long-term contracts.

“It’s competitive and eliminates price volatility,” Reitsma says. “It’s also part of their green marketing.”

The caveat is that developers and building owners are still finding it challenging to get upfront financing for such installations. The banks aren’t particularly excited about these projects, assuming they even understand their value.

“It’s probably the one thing holding these projects back,” says Reitsma, adding that government programs that help make financing more accessible would go a long way to stimulating market growth.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.


Reducing carbon emissions ain’t so hard, if you just try

My friend Tom Rand has a short but no less interesting video filmed during a presentation he gave recently in Toronto. Rand helped build a “green hotel” that emits a quarter of the emissions of a comparable hotel. The workhouse behind this approach is geothermal, and Rand said it can be done in a way where energy savings exceed the monthly payments on a long-term low-interest loan. Now, the key is to get that cheap loan. Rand said it’s up to the federal and provincial governments to backstop such loans and mandate the banks to lend the money. It would help, he added, if use of this technology was mandated where it was appropriate. This, as Rand says, is low-hanging fruit that we’re simply not picking. Instead, with each new building or home we build we’re letting this ripe-for-picking fruit fall on the ground. Rand, it should be pointed out, is behind another move to have the government sell green bonds that would help fund these kinds of projects, or backstop the low-interest loans required to do them. It’s all perfectly logical, but I guess politics is never as logical as it could be.

Click here to watch the short video.

Ontario homebuilder pursues district heating with geothermal

Marshall Homes was the first in Ontario to offer, back in 2006, solar thermal and geothermal as an option on homes in a new subdivision. President Craig Marshall now wants to build an 88-home community in which all homes are heated and cooled by a district geothermal energy system. It’s a great idea, but Marshall isn’t an energy service provider — he needs a strong partner to take on that side of the business, and his ideal partner is regional natural gas distributor Enbridge Gas Distribution. Problem is, Enbridge isn’t permitted by law to do anything but store and distribute natural gas. It can set up a separate, non-regulated entity, but in doing so it can’t leverage the power of its brand and the capital it can command.

Solution simple: Let the company broaden its energy offerings so it can pursue geothermal, solar thermal and other green energy offerings beyond just pilot projects. Yes, Enbridge’s current restrictions were created to ensure fair competition, but if others could do what Marshall Homes envisions, why aren’t they stepping up? (I should say, however, that local electric distribution company Veridian Connections is interested in working with Marshall, but the problem with working with LDCs is that you’re limited to a smaller service territory. Go outside that territory and you have to start all over again with a new LDC). Unleashing Enbridge could make a difference. Few companies have the scope, reach, engineering know-how and clout to take the district heating concept, so popular in Europe, and make it an attractive offering to builders of new subdivisions throughout the province.

See my column here discussing the Marshall Homes project and the role that Enbridge could play, if permitted.

Even the U.K. is doing enhanced geo: Where’s Canada?

Canada, with its vast territory and expertise in deep drilling, is still relativelysilent on the potential for geothermal power. Meanwhile, the U.K. is even leaping ahead of us. A tourist attracton in Cornwall, England, called The Eden Project has partnered up with a company called EGS Energy that will see a 3 megawatt enhanced geothermal plant built, with plans for further expansion throughout the area. Two four kilometre deep boreholes will be drilled into hot granite rock. Water will be brought in and pumped into one borehole and will travel through the hot rock to a second borehole, picking up heat along the way. The water will then be pumped back at around 150 degrees C. A secondary fluid, with a lower boiling point than water, extracts the heat from the hot water and is turned into vapour to power a binary turbine. The water, now cooled, is then reinjected back into the first well to reheat and continue the cycle, which is a closed loop.

The U.K. plant is expected to be operational by 2012. Needless to say, this approach could easily be done throughout Alberta, particularly in the oil sands, even in some locations in Ontario and other provinces. If the U.K. can do it, hell, certainly there are parts of Canada that can. In late May the Obama administration committed $140 million to geothermal demonstration projects, $80 million for enhanced geothermal R&D, and $100 million for new drilling techniques and innovation.

And Canada? The big goose egg.