Author: Rick Young, P.Geo. (ret.), CanGEA member
Could geothermal energy be the dark horse of Alberta’s green energy movement? One might think so based on the evident growing interest in this benign source of heat and power by people of diverse backgrounds. At the recent Geothermal Tech Transfer Workshop held at SAIT (June 23, 2016), there were almost 80 engineers, geoscientists, bankers, educators, lawyers, facility procurers and other specialists in attendance for the day, all intently interested in learning more about the nascent geothermal industry in western Canada. The workshop had numerous sponsors, but was organized primarily by CanGEA (Canadian Geothermal Energy Association).
The introductory paragraph written to entice people to sign up for the workshop is revealing enough. It reads, “Geothermal energy is delivering clean, base-load and low cost electricity in 24 countries around the world. Canada is still missing out on this opportunity. This workshop will target the question of how to transfer existing skills and expertise in oil/gas to geothermal project development. Low commodity prices and the economic downturn make this a hot topic”.
Ask most people what comes to mind when you mention geothermal energy and the answers will most likely be backyard-based heat exchangers, and volcanic geothermal fields like those of Iceland or New Zealand. But in between these extreme examples (very small to very large scale opportunities) lies a vast storehouse of heat energy in the form of hot, subsurface water. This briny water is found universally in layered rock formations of all sedimentary basins, such as the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, and in naturally fractured rock systems, such as the Rocky Mountain Trench.
Accessing and utilizing the energy trapped in hot, subsurface water systems is being successfully and economically exploited in several countries, including the U.S., Germany, and Turkey. This resource is huge in western and northern Canada, and ironically is quite well studied, analyzed, and mapped, thanks to countless tests conducted in oil and gas well operations over many decades on hundreds of thousands of wells. Another irony is the untapped knowledge, experience, and creativity of thousands of technical experts now idle from the economically depressed oil and gas industry that could be put to work developing new and better ways to extract the heat energy available in familiar areas of the conventional oil patch.
Besides the recognition problem that exists, another is the policy gap. Few jurisdictions in Canada have set up regulations or tax incentives to allow a geothermal energy industry to move forward. The media and politicians are mostly unaware of the vastness and opportunity of this facet of renewable energy, despite the desperate search for replacement solutions to replace coal, oil and gas as sources of heat and electricity.
One hopes that the Alberta government will include incentives and research funds to develop our geothermal energy resource in its Climate Leadership Plan and the Alternative and Renewable Energy Plan. Several government agencies are currently reviewing various sources of power. For example, the Alberta Electric System Operator (AESO) is seriously evaluating the potential of geothermal power generation. As well, Alberta Innovates, via its subsidiary C-FER Technologies, has a current research team looking into Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS). These high level agencies will help lead the way to increased use of geothermal energy in Alberta.
In the past, Alberta engineers and scientists have been very successful in developing technologies capable of extracting heavy oil from shallow-depth formations and bitumen from near-surface sandstone. These techniques, including SAG-D, steam injection, and oil-sands mining have been exported and utilized in many parts of the world. The new opportunity facing our creative scientific minds is to find ways to exploit geothermal brine waters for heat and power extraction. Many of the standards and designs used in high temperature, steam-assisted hydrocarbon extraction can also be used in geothermal water wells. Based on past experience in the unconventional oil and gas business, Alberta could become a leader, not a follower, in developing ways to utilize the geothermal resource beneath our feet.
What seems to be needed is a government-sponsored pilot project or a commercial venture that attempts to generate electricity and exploit geothermal heat in western Canada. Several companies, including Borealis GeoPower and Raven Thermal Services, have small commercial projects under development. Several small communities are also looking at geothermal resources to provide space heating and energy for new industries in their jurisdictions.
Are we on the cusp of recognizing and developing a new, green source of energy in Alberta? Many indicators point to a definite Yes. A new carbon tax to be imposed starting in 2017 will only increase broader interest in this resource.
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