The Volcanic Underground: Is Geothermal Energy The Answer?

Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan are sitting on a wealth of free, green energy. So why is nobody doing anything about it?

“We are already in the top – maybe the top five – producers of geothermal energy in the world.”

Strange words when you consider that Alberta has never produced a megawatt of geothermal. Alison Thompson, co-founder of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CANGEA), sounds exasperated trying to explain the fact. “We are producing the energy, we’re just not doing anything with it,” she says. “It’s like a nuclear plant or a coal plant spinning the electrical generator but you didn’t connect it to the grid.”

“We don’t have a geothermal industry in Alberta for the most part,” says Craig Dunn, chief geologist of Calgary-based Borealis GeoPower, all of whose projects are outside of Alberta. “We have people in the industry who are excited and opportunistic about what could be, but we are currently at zero megawatts of production.”

The potential is there. Canada’s west coast exists within the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire, making it a hotbed of geothermal activity. While Canada doesn’t see the earthquakes or volcanic activity of many other Ring of Fire countries, a 2010 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Geophysics and Geoengineering shows the abundant potential for geothermal. It found the most promising sites in Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan, at depths of between 3.5 and 6.5 kilometres (not deep by modern drilling standards). But unlike other Ring of Fire countries like the U.S., the Philippines, and Mexico, Canada has not developed much geothermal.

But with a new government and the prospect of long-term low oil prices, Alberta has never seen a greater opportunity for a geothermal industry to get off the ground.

Alberta’s poor performance in geothermal is especially surprising when you consider the technology and engineering know-how that exists in this province. “Given that we have tens of thousands of wells and then tens of thousands more that have been abandoned or suspended, this is an enormous resource that we’ve already managed in Alberta, and that’s a surprise for a lot of people,” Thompson says. “The real message here is the silver lining. You go looking for oil, and you get some silver along the way.”

Dunn says that technologically, Canada is among the best in the world for both drilling and resource exploration. In his mind, there is no excuse for not being ahead of the countries that are producing geothermal.

Both Dunn and Thompson say a major reason behind this stagnation is a simple lack of interest. For years, geothermal has existed under the radar of both the oil and gas giants and the provincial government. When oil was at $100 a barrel it was hard to get producers to discuss geothermal. And when the only way to develop geothermal is to partner with the oil and gas industry, you have a stalemate. “Why are we not doing it is because no one cared,” Thompson says. “No one cared before about being a bit more green or they didn’t care about maybe getting another quarter of a million dollars in revenue off that wellhead with oil prices over $100.”

That’s no longer the case. Now, geothermal may start blinking on the radar of the oil and gas industry because, while the short-term benefits may be less than those of oil and gas, in the long run it can help a company’s bottom line. “The advantage is that you’re building an infrastructure for a renewable resource that can run indefinitely,” Dunn says.

And one can see the benefits of geothermal for Albertan workers. They would put drillers and engineers back to work in the energy industry, and put the keys back into equipment that is now sitting cold and dormant.

One of the hurdles the industry needs to overcome is a lack of provincial policy surrounding geothermal. For instance, right now you can’t get a permit just to develop a geothermal resource. It has to be part of another resource-development permit. Thompson is hopeful there will be some movement in that regard. She points out that CANGEA never got a meeting during the years of Progressive Conservative rule in this province, but within months of the NDP taking over, she has organized a meeting with Energy Minister Margaret McCuaig-Boyd.

“This is a type of warmer welcome that we’re getting,” she says. “We’re not looking at future pie-in-the-sky, but at what can we do today to make tomorrow different.” Both Dunn and Thompson are adamant that geothermal can and will work hand in hand with the core of Alberta’s energy industry. The relationship would be a symbiotic one, with geothermal supplementing oil and gas.

“This is not about shutting [the oil patch] down, this is about extending it and making it, right at the wellhead, more green,” Thompson says. “Get more use out of your footprint. You’ve disturbed the land, let’s get micro power and oil and gas out of it.”
There are projects on the horizon that offer promise to the geothermal industry.

One initiative is underway near Hinton, in the rolling foothills east of Jasper. Researchers from the University of Alberta have teamed up with Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions and the towns in the region to study the development of 10 geothermal reservoirs. Advocates hope that proving to industry and the new government that it is possible to extract geothermal will jumpstart the industry. “We need to start using what we have and not pitting environmental movement against oil and gas,” Thompson says. “We’re all in this together, and we can all work together to make energy more sustainable and more green without shutting people down.”

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