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A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta., in 2016.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta is turning its eye to geothermal energy as part of a diversification effort to pull itself out of economic doldrums and pursue greener energy solutions.

The UCP government will this fall table legislation it hopes will spur investment in geothermal energy, resuscitating jobs in the oil- and gas-well drilling and servicing sectors that have evaporated with the fall in crude prices and demand.

Energy Minister Sonya Savage said Wednesday the plan is to ensure the province has the regulatory and investment climate in place to make it competitive with other jurisdictions around the world.

“The potential of the geothermal industry is here and now, and it’s crucial that the Alberta government keeps pace,” she said.

The geothermal process extracts heat in the form of hot water or steam from several kilometres inside the Earth. The heat is used to generate electricity through large power turbines. Unlike solar or wind energy, it can provide continuous electricity to the grid.

Geothermal also carries the advantage of having green credentials. It has substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions than other forms of energy and presents a way to repurpose inactive oil and gas wells for heat and power production.

The fact oil rigs are flexible enough to be used in geothermal drilling, coupled with the province’s geothermal-friendly geology, puts Alberta at a distinct advantage to pursue the green fuel source.

Ms. Savage stressed that the move by the United Conservative Party government to develop geothermal policy doesn’t mean oil and gas is going anywhere.

Most energy forecasts have fossil fuels continuing to dominate the global energy mix in the coming years, even as greener sources such as solar, wind and hydrogen increase their market share. Ms. Savage said developing Alberta’s full geothermal potential also "feeds into the narrative that Alberta is taking emissions reduction seriously.”

Alberta’s NDP energy critic Irfan Sabir agreed that geothermal development is a necessary part of the province’s energy future, but said the plan announced by Ms. Savage was “all hat, no cattle,” and does little to address the immediate jobs crisis.

Currently in Alberta, geothermal projects are approved on a case-by-case basis through the province’s oil and gas regulations. That approach isn’t ideal, Ms. Savage said, because without a guiding set of regulations specific to the industry, investors do not have the predictability they’re looking for.

The details of the regulatory framework that will govern the geothermal sector will not be finalized until after government has consulted with industry.

Mr. Sabir criticized the government’s timeline, saying that by announcing proposed regulations before consulting with industry, "the UCP will only cause more uncertainty without drawing investment or creating jobs.”

Geothermal energy has never been a major player in Canada, with high initial start-up costs. Still, myriad pilot projects are already under way in Alberta.

Take a setup by Eavor Technologies Inc. near Rocky Mountain House, between Calgary and Edmonton, which received a series of federal and provincial grants. The demonstration project generates reliable power without fracking, greenhouse gas emissions, earthquake risks or water use.

Eavor lead engineer Bailey Schwarz said Wednesday the company partners with the oil and gas service sector to use existing infrastructure, so it can minimize surface and environmental impacts.

She said it is satisfying to see that drilling technologies “designed for the more traditional energy sector have found a home in a green and clean solution.”

Juli Rohl is a geologist with Energy Futures Lab, a partnership between government, industry and academia that looks for ways to help Alberta make the transition toward a more resilient, sustainable energy system. The lab has been working on advancing geothermal production in Western Canada for five years. Ms. Rohl said Wednesday said that the sector will not only allow the drilling industry to put its idle rigs back to work, but will also help nearby communities generate emissions-free power and heat.

The lab is also working on a project to understand how one Alberta First Nation can repurpose inactive gas wells to harness the warmth from the Earth to heat a greenhouse, helping provide economic and food security for the community.

“With enhanced geothermal activity around these rural towns, many industries and small businesses could be revitalized. These are not far-fetched ideas or theories. These initiatives are currently under way within the Energy Futures Lab portfolio,” Ms. Rohl said.

“[Geothermal] is the perfect solution because it draws on the skills of our people, the potential within the Earth, and the aspirations of a low emissions future.”

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