Geothermal power has lagged wind and solar in the race to develop renewable energy generation, but recent advances now offer a promising opportunity for Canadian investment.
“I do think it’s Canada’s time to shine,” Sara Hastings-Simon, director of the sustainable energy development program at the University of Calgary, told The Globe and Mail. “It’s like the next block that’s needed in the building of the decarbonized grid.”
Geothermal power plants generate low-emission electricity by tapping into hot water reserves in aquifers deep underground. The technology is more expensive, less commercialized, and overall less competitive than other, more developed renewable sources, but it is gaining recognition as governments increasingly look to decarbonize their power grids.
Natural Resources Canada has been investing in the power source with millions in grants awarded to several Canadian projects over the past few years, the Globe notes. The grants have been critical for moving projects along, especially in the Western provinces where the sector needs to compete with oil and gas for technology, equipment, and workers.
But in the long run, some see the West’s oil and gas infrastructure as an asset for geothermal’s future.
“Proponents of geothermal also see it as a transition opportunity, where workers with oil and gas experience can easily pivot their skills to a greener sector,” the Globe writes. “And here in southeast Saskatchewan, deep in oil and gas country, the general consensus is that any opportunity to get people and equipment back to work is a good one.”
For instance, the drilling rig contracted by Deep Earth Energy Production (DEEP) Corporation for a project in Saskatchewan was previously used for oil and gas. The company that owns the rig, Panther Drilling, can take the opportunity to diversify its equipment and skilled work force away from the turmoil of oil and gas.
The Fort Nelson First Nation in northern British Columbia is also looking to geothermal to provide heat and power to the community through the Tu Deh-Kah project. (Tu Deh-Kah translates to “water steam.”) Fort Nelson Chief Sharleen Gale said the project will also support food security by providing reliable renewable heat for greenhouses.
“These kinds of projects aren’t here to displace oil and gas completely. We all use things that require oil and gas products. But we have to be able to work in balance,” she told the Globe. “In my eyes, geothermal is a viable technology, and it aligns the economy with the environment.”
In a next-step approach, Alberta company Eavor Technologies is designing geothermal technology that works as “a sealed-off, closed-loop system that doesn’t require a permeable aquifer.” The Globe explains that Eavor drilled its first project in Alberta in 2019, but most of its work is now in Germany, where the government is replacing nuclear power with renewables. Colossal fossils like BP and Chevron have also shown interest in Eavor’s projects with investments totalling US$40 million.
The future success of geothermal now depends on the technology winning more government support going forward, the Globe writes. So far, the political will seems to be there. Saskatchewan Energy and Resources Minister Bronwyn Eyre said her province is “exploring everything we can do, policy-wise.” The government of Alberta, meanwhile, passed the Geothermal Resource Development Act in 2020 to support the sector.
“There’s no party that doesn’t like geothermal,” said Canadian Geothermal Energy Association Chair Alison Thompson, “but the more knowledgeable our politicians or bureaucrats can be, the more effective we’re going to be as an industry.”