At a time when B.C.’s politicians are considering flooding the Peace Valley for the Site C hydroelectric dam, a new project by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association says the province could be sitting on a figurative gold mine of power with low environmental impact.
The project used publicly available data to produce a database of maps and supporting information that show all the areas in B.C. that have the potential to produce geothermal energy. The project reports that, using existing technology, the province could produce between 5,500 and 6,600 mega watts of power — enough to power the whole province.
Ironically, the information CanGEA used comes mainly from the oil and gas industry, which is required by law to report on things like well depth and temperature.
Significantly, information is only available for 23 percent of the province, indicating that once data becomes available for the remainder of the province, the estimates for geothermal energy production should be even higher.
In addition to comprehensive data about conditions below the surface, the report also identifies areas that, based on surface characteristics, show promise. These areas are primarily in the northeast of B.C. where access via roads and other infrastructure are already in place, largely thanks to natural gas development. Factors like these diminish initial exploration costs, a primary barrier to commercial geothermal development in Canada, making it more economically viable.
"We have over 20,000 data points. We actually have real data. These are not estimates, there is no extrapolation," she said, adding the report and the maps will be useful to industry looking to conduct explorations for sites in B.C.
“The low level of effort is surprising, especially if it results in a plan that involves large and possibly avoidable environmental and social costs,” the panel wrote.
Geothermal power can be build out incrementally to meet demand, rather than building one big project like the Site C dam.
Geothermal power plants provide a firm source of base load power, similar to a hydro dam. Dr. Stephen Grasby, a geochemist with Natural Resources Canada, says the environmental footprint of geothermal energy is smaller than other renewable energy sources, such as wind and hydro.
“For instance, the surface area required to have developments like a wind farm, that takes a large surface area and has other associated issues with things like bird kill,” he said. Geothermal energy requires only a well and a heat exchange system.
“Drilling is relatively low impact,” he said, adding with a laugh, “worst case scenario is you accidentally discover oil or something.”
Drilling would be controlled by the same regulations that already monitor any kind of well drilling in the province.
Canada is currently the only major country
located along the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire not producing geothermal energy. A Geological Survey of Canada report recently noted that northeast B.C.
has the “highest potential for immediate development of geothermal energy” anywhere in the country.
The Site C joint review panel recommended that, regardless of the decision taken on Site C, that BC Hydro establish a research and development budget for the engineering characterization of geographically diverse renewable resources, such as geothermal.
“If the senior governments were doing their job, there would be no need for this recommendation,” the panel added.
Photo: Blue lagoon geothermal plant in Icleand. Jamie Slomski via Flickr.