Alberta has been taking new interest in renewable energy sources of late, but while solar and wind often take the spotlight, they aren’t the only means of energy diversification worth an investment. Geothermal energy sources also have potential in Alberta—but does that mean Alberta is ready to welcome geothermal into its industry?
Alberta’s geothermal potential
Geothermal electricity generation is nothing new, but it is new to Canada’s energy industry. Canada is the only major country on the Pacific Rim that isn’t using its underground thermal resources to produce energy, and it isn’t due to the lack of potential. The geologically-active Pacific Rim has the potential to produce enough geothermal energy to be a worthwhile investment for British Columbia, Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Alberta in particular. Back in 2007, it was even estimated that half of British Columbia’s electricity needs could be met by geothermal production alone.
What is geothermal energy?
Geothermal energy is heat energy that is generated and stored within the Earth’s crust. Its name is derived from Greek: “ge” (earth), and “thermos” (hot). It is actually some of the oldest energy available to us because it originally formed alongside the formation of the planet, as well as through the radioactive decay of materials within the Earth. In other words, it is constantly being produced, and as the heat from the Earth’s core transfers to the surface of the planet, that thermal energy is continuously being conducted—and that means it is a continuously prevalent and renewing resource.
Looking for a clear example of geothermal power? Have you ever been to one of Alberta’s hot springs? Geothermal energy has been used for centuries. In the Paleolithic era, it was used for bathing; in the Roman era, it was used for space heating. Now, worldwide, it creates approximately 11,700 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power.
The benefit for Alberta
Alberta’s hot springs indicate that there are clear access points for harvesting geothermal energy here, and that is one of the reasons Alberta is considered to be one of the provinces that could profit most from geothermal energy generation—but access isn’t the only reason geothermal presents clear opportunities and advantages for Alberta. The geothermal energy industry also has synergy with Alberta’s oil and gas industry.
Developing geothermal could help put oil patch workers, like geologists, reservoir engineers, drillers, etc., back to work. That means that, instead of developing an industry that is in competition with the oil and gas industry, Alberta would be investing in an industry that shares and expands the oil and gas-related resources and job base. Geothermal also represents a means of energy diversification and the creation of a segment of the energy industry that Alberta could essentially transition its oil and gas-dependent economy onto—one that harvests and markets a renewable resource that can consistently and cost-efficiently be produced within Canada.
The Alberta government has taken an interest in geothermal generation, and more than 60,000 oil and gas wells have been studied to determine their heat content and geothermal potential. Geothermal could form a productive solution to the abandoned wells dilemma in addition to providing benefits to the energy industry and Alberta economy at large. However, it is still to be seen whether or not geothermal will help shape Alberta’s energy future.
For more information about geothermal generation, or about green energy alternatives that are available to you, contact us at energyrates.ca today.
Pros and cons of geothermal energy
Now that you know what geothermal energy is, here are some geothermal energy facts that will help illustrate the upsides and downsides of this energy source.
One particularly attractive pro about geothermal energy is that it’s environmentally friendly in comparison to gas or oil furnaces, which obviously causes less pollution.
Burning fossil fuels is highly related to pollution, increasing temperatures and smog, so the implantation of geothermal energy not only reduces emissions, but also improves our health. In addition to this, geothermal energy is considered a renewable source, and is more reliable compared to other green sources, such as wind energy and solar power.
This is because geothermal energy can be produced at all times with little disruption — solar and wind energy are subject to the weather, alongside other variables. Another geothermal energy pro is that is can be built partially underground, meaning that it won’t necessarily require too much land. Wind turbines and solar panels typically require more space.
Although there are many pros to geothermal energy, there are a few downsides to it as well. For one thing, geothermal energy is very location-specific, and geothermal power zones are often quite far away from urban areas. So it’s unlikely that geothermal energy can be used for wide-scale energy production, unlike fossil fuel combustion.
Another disadvantage is that the upfront costs of implementing geothermal energy projects are quite high, usually around $10,000-20,000. With such high costs, geothermal energy still has difficulty competing with other cheaper, more practical energy sources.
One final and surprising con of geothermal energy is that it can trigger earthquakes, as reported by many scientists across the globe. According to seismologist David Oppenheimer of the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquakes Hazards Team in a Scientific American article, large-scale digging underground offers a risk of triggering earthquakes. Oppenheimer states that quakes as large as magnitude 4.5 have been recorded in areas next to geothermal drilling plants in California, even though the areas did not appear to have any large faults running through it.
Since most energy sources don’t offer this risk, geothermal energy may not be worth it in this specific aspect.
What to expect from geothermal energy projects in Alberta?
According to CBC News, Eavor-Loop, a $10 million geothermal project, is to take place in Central Alberta. The president of the company undergoing this project claims that this particular geothermal energy system will work like a radiator, in which a giant U-shaped well will be created and fluid will collect heat from below the Earth’s surface within this loop.
The Natural Resources Canada’s Clean Growth Program and Sustainable Development Technology Canada have provided $6.7 million in federal funding for this project, in support of clean energy initiatives that will help create new jobs and help make progress towards climate action goals.
Another geothermal project in Alberta is the Alberta No. 1 project, located in the Municipal District of Greenview No. 16. The Canadian development company No. 1 Geothermal Limited Partnership and Akita Drilling have partnered together to move this project forward. The Alberta No. 1 project will produce a minimum of 5 MWe of clean, baseload electricity and 300 TJ per year of thermal energy for local industries, which include manufacturing, forestry, and innovative agriculture. Additionally, the project will create over 300 jobs, direct and indirect.
Geothermal energy in Blatchford, Alberta
Blatchford is a region of the City of Edmonton that currently invests several resources into geothermal energy. The Blatchford Geoexchange field was created in response to acknowledging that a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions in Edmonton were produced by residential and commercial buildings (both contribute 20% each).
A district energy sharing system (DESS) would make use of the renewable geothermal energy the Blatchford Geoexchange field provides in order to distribute and share heating and cooling energy between all buildings within the neighbourhood.
This district energy sharing system would then replace all furnaces, air conditioners and boilers in the neighbourhood, thereby reducing emissions. In addition, the DESS would be able to capture and store heat in the summer for use in the winter, which would make the project more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.
Is geothermal energy renewable?
As we’ve touched on in earlier paragraphs, geothermal energy is renewable — but you may be wondering “how is geothermal energy renewable?” According to the United States Department of Energy, geothermal energy is renewable because the Earth’s core produces almost unlimited heat, and this heat is the basis of geothermal energy.
What environmental impacts does geothermal energy cause?
Although we stated that geothermal energy causes less pollution than other forms of energy production — it generates way less carbon dioxide emissions — it can still have some potential consequences on the environment.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, geothermal plants can produce small amounts of mercury emissions — which these plants usually try to mitigate using scrubbers. However, as a result, large amounts of toxic sludge are produced and need to be stored in wast facilities, which could potentially increase the risks of environmental contamination in these sites.
Are there any geothermal energy investments by the province?
As a part of the Alberta 2021 budget, the Government of Alberta has allotted $28 million for Geothermal Resource Development and the Mineral Strategy, including mapping of targeted public geoscience information in Alberta. This funding comes as a part of the province’s energy strategies to support competitiveness in the energy industry and to capitalize on emerging opportunities.
What is Bill 36 (The Geothermal Resource Development Act)?
Bill 36, the Geothermal Resource Development Act is a regulatory framework for the development of geothermal resources in Alberta. Here are the key points related to the Geothermal Resource Development Act:
- outlines rules and processes for the industry to ensure geothermal resources are developed responsibly and in the best interests of Albertans.
- establishes the legislative authority for land use and liability management.
- protects landowners and mineral rights owners.
- establishes the government’s authority to receive revenues, such as royalties and fees.
- Can Bill 36 boost Alberta’s geothermal energy generation?
Bill 36 can definitely boost Alberta’s geothermal energy generation – we can compare the technical potential and theoretical potential for geothermal in Alberta to understand this better.
The technical potential is “the fraction of the theoretical potential that can be used under the existing technical restrictions… structural and ecologic restrictions as well as legal and regulatory allowances” (Rybach, 2010).
Theoretical potential is an estimate of “the physically usable energy supply over a certain time span in a given region. It is defined solely by the physical limits of use and thus marks the upper limit of the theoretically realizable energy supply contribution” (Rybach, 2010).
According to the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, there is a geothermal resource potential of 388,500 megawatts (MW) in Alberta that can be used under existing technical, structural and ecologic restrictions (with a 14% recovery rate.)
In terms of theoretical generation potential, there’s a total of 8,176,000 MW in Alberta. Bill 36 can further develop Alberta’s geothermal resources to raise its technical potential.
So then, is geothermal worth the investment? According to Osler, there are a number of reasons why it’d be worth it to make the investment – since Alberta has extensive experience developing gas and oil resources, this experience would also transfer over to developing geothermal resources. Other advantages Alberta would have with geothermal investment include:
- availability of extensive subsurface data, a well-established service sector and existing infrastructure.
- opportunities for co-production with oil and gas and to repurpose inactive oil and gas wells.
- Drilling and completions expertise and lead technologies, as well as extensive oil and gas expertise.
Is geothermal energy costly?
According to the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, most of the costs associated with geothermal energy plants are associated with early expenses rather than the fuel required to run the plants. Using the United States as a comparison, a field and power plant would cost around $2500 USD per installed kW and anywhere between $3000-$5000 USD/kWe for a small power plant. Maintenance costs would be around $0.01 to $0.03 per kWh. So, in terms of up-front costs, geothermal energy can be quite costly.
We can also look at this graph from the Canada Energy Regulator to help us understand how costly geothermal energy is in comparison to other energy sources used in Canada. The graph represents the levelized cost of electricity for a number of different energy sources. Image source: Canada’s Adoption of Renewable Power Sources – Energy Market Analysis
The levelized cost is the average price an electricity generator must receive for each unit it generates over its lifetime to financially break even. So, while geothermal energy doesn’t have the lowest levelized cost, it also doesn’t have the highest – it averages around the same as carbon capture and storage, as well as solar/photovoltaic power.