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Why Canada’s geothermal industry is finally gaining ground

Heat from below the Earth’s surface has provided a reliable source of electricity for decades in many countries — but not Canada. Now, several projects underway in western provinces could herald a new era for this untapped resource and offer job opportunities for former oil and gas workers

One of the world’s most restless geological regions, the Pacific Ring of Fire is a horseshoe-shaped belt running up the west coast of South and North America and east coast of Asia and the South Pacific, triggering many of our planet’s earthquakes and volcanoes. Canada has long been the only country in this Ring of Fire to not take advantage of its energy potential by commercially generating electricity from the vast underground store of heat. 

And Canada’s geothermal resources are not limited to this dramatic hot zone. Radioactive decay of elements in the Earth’s crust generates heat, accessible anywhere that geological anomalies like faults and fractures create conduits for hot fluids to be accessed by drilling. Those hot fluids, pumped to the surface, can be used to drive turbines to create electricity. One such heat-transferring geological anomaly is the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin — a rock sandwich below much of Alberta, dipping into southwestern Manitoba, southern Saskatchewan, northeastern B.C. and southwestern Northwest Territories.

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Canada’s abundant and relatively low-cost natural resources of water, coal, oil and natural gas, combined with its highly dispersed population rarely clustered near geothermal sites, has long made geothermal electricity production too cost-prohibitive. For decades, geothermal interest and investment has waxed and waned, but largely failed to leave the starting gate as an electricity source. 

Now though, are we on the cusp of change?

Canada’s first commercial-scale geothermal electricity plant

Before leading Canada’s deepest geothermal project to date, geologist Kirsten Marcia worked in the mining and oil and gas sectors. A particularly challenging coal project led her to question “the treadmill of exploitation” — digging out resources and going back for more. Now she is redeploying her expertise in renewable energy as founder, president and CEO of DEEP, a project near Estevan, Sask., at the forefront of Canada’s new commercial-scale geothermal development.

With its first discovery well drilled in 2018, DEEP aims to complete feasibility studies in 2020 and send electrons to the grid by 2022. Poised to become Canada’s first commercial-scale geothermal electricity plant, there have been challenges, Marcia admits. 

“It hasn’t been cheap drilling,” she says, “and we’ve been very fortunate to have investors and federal funding support the project.”

DEEP’s long-term goal, beginning with this first drilling site, is to develop hundreds of megawatts of baseload power facilities from small, scalable, repeatable five to 20 MW power plants, each capable of powering up to 5,000 households.

DEEP geothermal power project Saskatchewan

DEEP geothermal drill rig. In December 2018, DEEP drilled the province’s deepest well, over 3,000 metres below the ground surface. Photo: DEEP

High up-front costs relative to wind and solar is a longstanding geothermal stumbling block. Compared with oil and gas wells, geothermal wells — in this sedimentary basin, at least — must be deeper and the well bore diameter needs to be wider to allow for a high flow rate of hot water pumped to the surface, explains geothermal geologist Catherine Hickson. 

Geothermal’s main advantage is that the Earth’s core heat will be available consistently for the next billion years, allowing it to be used as a source of baseload power to the electrical grid, unlike relying on when the wind blows and sun shines for intermittent power.

Hickson is leading another major geothermal project in northwest Alberta. The Alberta No. 1 project, located near Grande Prairie, aims to generate approximately 5 MW of power for the grid as well as provide heat to a nearby industrial park. 

“Work is underway right now on the final well design and discussions with our partners,” Hickson says. Drilling will begin as early as the fall. 

The $58 million project has received $25.45 million through Natural Resources Canada and is expected to employ nearly 200 workers through construction. 

Hickson’s own interest in geothermal got off to an explosive start when, as a UBC geology undergraduate student on a long weekend camping trip in May 1980, she witnessed, and survived, Mount Saint Helens blowing its top. That serendipitous event inspired Hickson to spend much of her career studying volcanoes before her segue to the geothermal industry — first within volcanic systems close to the Earth’s surface, like those in Iceland, and now harnessing the less volatile deep sedimentary heat sources underneath the Canadian Prairies.

The history of geothermal energy in Canada

The viability of geothermal electricity production, Hickson explains, has historically been tied to the price of crude oil. 

Optimism bubbled up for Canada’s geothermal advancement in the mid-1970s to 1980 during the energy crisis when oil prices rose dramatically. At that time, concern centred around an adequate national supply of energy. 

“It wasn’t so much renewables and green energy, it was just energy in general,” says Stephen Grasby, research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada. 

Both Grasby and Hickson worked at the Geological Survey of Canada during what Grasby calls its geothermal “heyday.” From the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, the government agency hosted a large geothermal research program exploring Canada’s geothermal potential. That abruptly ended around 1985 as the low cost of oil tipped the balance toward geothermal being too expensive to pursue. 

Hickson eventually left for industry, while Grasby tried to revive what was left of their work, setting out to capture essential geothermal knowledge “before it got lost in people’s garages,” he says. Grasby is now president, with Hickson vice-president, of Geothermal Canada, a non-profit organization working to advance geothermal energy in Canada and beyond. 

Geothermal energy is taking off globally, so why not in Canada?

Since those heydays, they’ve watched the continued turbulence in the oil market and its subsequent effect on the ups and downs in geothermal interest. 

There was the late 1990s oil price crash that dashed Canada’s geothermal hopes for that era. Then in the 2000s, as crude prices increased, interest and investment in geothermal development surged. That ended with the economic crisis of 2008.

Over the last two years, interest in geothermal has separated from the price of hydrocarbons for the first time, Hickson says. Crude oil has gone down yet there is increased interest in geothermal as an opportunity to offset greenhouse gas emissions. In Alberta, where Hickson grew up, she says, “geothermal provides a great offset for coal-fired power.”

Across B.C. and Alberta, a handful of projects using geothermal energy to produce electricity are at varying stages of development.

Grasby, lead author on a 2012 Natural Resources report on Canada’s geothermal potential, highlights that, beyond its utility to produce electricity, geothermal could also supply some of Canada’s heating demand, which comprises 60 per cent of the country’s energy needs. Direct use of geothermal heat is already in place at some of Western Canada’s famous spas at hot springs, and also in places like Springhill, N.S., where heat from a shuttered coal mine is now used via a heat pump system by local homes and businesses. But this is the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential opportunity.   

With signs of broad change on Canada’s geothermal landscape, another question burns on the minds of many: could geothermal put unemployed oil and gas workers back to work?

Can a geothermal industry help unemployed oil and gas workers?

The geothermal industry “has laser sharp focus on what can Alberta do, and what can Canada do, to get drillers back working in our current economy?” Hickson says. Geothermal, with its need for well-drilling, “is a perfect fit.” She cautions that it will take time to scale up geothermal production, and it’s not a panacea for solving all of the oil industry’s problems.

Marcia is also cautiously optimistic. “The synergies are fantastic,” she says. 

There are differences in well-drilling, but the ability, expertise, geologists and geophysicists — all of those employment opportunities are the same in geothermal. But “I don’t want to oversell it,” she cautions. With thousands of oil rigs on the Canadian prairies, even if multiple geothermal companies advance, “it’s still going to be a drop in the bucket” she says, “and a great transition for [only] a percentage of those workers.”

But the oil and gas industry has more to offer geothermal than skilled workers. Geological datasets from thousands of Western Canadian oil and gas wells also provide clues to geothermal prospectors about where to drill. Clues, but not certainty. 

Geothermal energy Canada DEEP

Workers at the DEEP geothermal energy project site outside Estevan, Sask. Photo: DEEP

“Oil and gas resources are above us,” explains Marcia. Geothermal wells typically go 500 to 1,000 metres deeper. Since it’s not a core focus of oil and gas exploration, temperature at depth is not necessarily measured, and sometimes geothermal experts have to infer it from a series of data sources using oil and gas cores and cuttings, seismic survey, lidar and electromagnetic methods. 

“It’s a bit like putting a 3D puzzle together,” says geophysicist Jeff Witter, principal geoscientist of Innovate Geothermal in Vancouver. Geothermal drilling in Western Canada’s sedimentary basin is, at least initially, exploratory. The four new wells drilled for the DEEP project are the deepest ever drilled in Saskatchewan, reaching more than 3.5 kilometres below the earth’s surface.

As for Alberta, even though over 700,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled, few have drilled into deeper sections, explains Hickson. Deeper drilling comes with more sedimentation, harder rock and high quartz content that makes drilling slow. Drill bits quickly wear out.

To access the high volume of hot brine needed to generate electricity in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin — a relatively low temperature system compared with volcanic systems like Iceland — the wellbore size needs to be bigger, usually at least twice the diameter of an oil or gas well. Aiming for water temperatures above 120 C, prospectors like Hickson seek a Goldilocks zone with a trifecta of conditions: just the right temperature, drilling depth and flow rate.

One project in the works through Razor Energy Corp. is looking at co-production of geothermal and oil and gas. The company is testing hot fluids pumped to the surface during oil and gas drilling to see whether they could be used for energy production.

As a rule of thumb, explains Katie Huang, geoscientist in training with the Alberta No. 1 project, temperature jumps approximately 30 C for each kilometre below the surface. After graduating from the University of British Columbia with a geology degree in 2015 during an economic downturn, Huang had to think outside the box about career options. She headed off to the University of Iceland for a Master’s in Geothermal Science. Back in Canada, she’s excited to be a part of this new wave of geothermal interest at home. 

“I know that there are a lot of people in the oil and gas industry hoping to transition over,” Huang says. “And I hope this project can help.”

The future of geothermal in Canada

DEEP and Alberta No. 1 have both recently received significant investment from Natural Resources Canada’s Emerging Renewable Power Program. Advancing multiple forms of renewable energy, including wind, solar and tidal, the program is part of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change announced in 2017, explains André Bernier, senior director at Natural Resources Canada’s Renewable and Electrical Energy Division. 

About a quarter of the funding announced by the program thus far — $51 million — has been allocated to geothermal, says his colleague Zoë Beaulac, senior program officer in the same division at Natural Resources Canada. Additional geothermal project funding, Bernier hints, may soon be announced.  

Smaller projects and pilot studies in Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. are heating up too. The Clarke Lake Geothermal Project in Fort Nelson, B.C., for example, has raised 93 per cent of the funding needed to launch. With hundreds of gas wells in the area already providing relevant data on where to drill for heat, John Ebell, project manager for the Fort Nelson First Nation’s project, says they are ready to drill a full-scale production well that could serve the region’s complete electrical needs. 

Clarke Lake Geothermal Map

Map of the Clarke Lake geothermal study area. BC Hydro transmission lines are shown in yellow. Map: Geoscience BC

This would replace existing gas-fired reliance with clean energy, power an industrial greenhouse development, and create jobs and energy sovereignty for a region that is economically depressed in part due to downturns in the gas and forestry industries.  

“This project would produce 10,000 worker days worth of work, and the majority of those would go to oil and gas sector expertise,” says Ebell, adding the project would “seriously invigorate the economy in the region.”

Fort Nelson First Nation lands permit to transform aging gas field into geothermal energy project

To decarbonize the power sector, it’s helpful to have a combination of different renewables, including geothermal, explains Sara Hastings-Simon, senior researcher at the Colorado School of Mines, formerly with the University of Calgary and Pembina Institute, who now works remotely from her home base in Calgary. She was part of a team that studied the complementary relationship between geothermal and the oil and gas sector in Alberta, and whether the oil and gas industry can enable geothermal advancement. She and colleagues highlighted that benefits can flow both ways, with geothermal deployed to reduce emissions in the oilsands. The birth of the oilsands industry, Hastings-Simon points out, involved government leading the way, taking on some of the early stage risk by proving the technology out. Now, when it comes to geothermal, the need for government investment is no different, she says. 

“We need government investment to unlock that market.”

Until recently, “there was no way you could get a geothermal [project] off the ground in Canada, unless you were talking about a spa around an existing geothermal hot spring,” Hickson says. 

Now, significant federal investment is critically important, she explains. “Suddenly, we have a game changer.” 

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