Geothermal power – where electricity is generated from turbines powered by hot water or steam from underground – has taken hold in two dozen countries around the world. Yet Canada, which has plentiful geothermal resources, especially in the West, remains a blank slate.
A lack of government policy support is blamed for keeping the industry from getting started here.
Indeed, while geothermal was seen as a possible alternative to the giant Site C dam in British Columbia, the provincial government gave the hydroelectric project the go-ahead in December.
Ironically, several companies that own geothermal projects in other countries trade their shares on the Toronto stock exchanges, raising money here from investors knowledgeable about the broader resource sector.
Alison Thompson, managing director of Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA), spoke to The Globe and Mail about the current state of the industry and its longer-term potential.
Why has geothermal power not gained traction yet in Canada?
There are a number of factors. One is, there is plentiful [supply] of everything else: coal and nuclear and oil and gas and hydro. It really is human nature. Once you build something, you are not really looking around for other options.
Is part of the problem that people don't understand geothermal power?
Politicians continue to believe misrepresentations of what geothermal is. [But] this ain't your grandma's geothermal. Things have changed radically.
[They say] it is too remote. That has changed. All kinds of other resource extraction has happened in Canada, and that has actually forged access into wilderness areas. We can take advantage of that footprint, so we are no longer too remote.
[They also say] it is too expensive. But in the 1980s, something called a binary geothermal power plant was developed. This type of power plant makes use of lower temperature water. It is still boiling, but it is not volcanic. Thirty years ago, that technology did not exist. You no longer need volcanic style resources to make geothermal power.
The other thing that has changed, is that a lot of exploration has been done in unconventional fields called hot sedimentary aquifers, which is where the oil and gas people operate. They have almost nine units of water come up for every one unit of petroleum, be it gas or oil. And those nine units of water or fluid are, in most cases, hot enough to use a binary geothermal power plant.
Are there off–the-shelf geothermal plants that could be put in any one of those locations?
Absolutely. There are more than ten different international vendors who sell them. It is a hotly competitive, very efficient, functioning market.
Don't you still have to do a lot of drilling to find the right spot for a geothermal plant?
Just like oil and gas, you will never really know what you have until you drill. That's fair. But the trend now in geothermal is that you spend a lot of time exploring before you drill. In the old days, because the exploration techniques weren't even available, people got to the drilling too quickly. But now that you have a plethora of low-cost novel techniques to use, you can spend more money on exploration, and save money over all, because you have fewer dry holes.
Where are the best potential locations in Canada for geothermal power?
Mainly out west. B.C. is the crown jewel for sure, followed closely by the Yukon. The Northwest Territories also has hot sedimentary aquifers. So does Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Governments seem loath to help the geothermal industry. Is that frustrating?
We have forgotten the unbelievable support that [was given to] oil and gas, forestry, mining, nuclear, and hydrogen fuel cells. We're not against any of them, but to say the renewable industry, and geothermal in particular, needs to take all the risk by itself … that is not how the other industries got to where they are today. [In some provinces] you can't even get a permit for a geothermal project.
If you want green [businesses], and the jobs that we can deliver – and are being delivered in 25 countries – you can't stand on the sidelines and be very conservative about it and say, well, do it yourself. Even the conservatives of the world were the first ones helping these other industries get to where they are today.
What do you think of B.C.'s recent approval of the huge Site C hydro-electric project?
[The] decision is a disservice to BC Hydro ratepayers, B.C. taxpayers, the First Nations, the environment and the economy, when another alternative is available. Times have changed. Building a large scale dam … does not best serve this or future generations. Beyond coming out ahead on capital cost and [the] price of electricity, geothermal power in British Columbia also provides at least nine other distinct advantages over Site C – advantages that are enjoyed in 25 other countries and counting.
Do you find it ironic that several geothermal companies operating in other countries trade on the TSX, yet we have no industry here?
People have come to Canada to raise resource money. Geothermal is mining and oil-and-gas type money. People are very familiar and comfortable with drilling. They at least know what that is. I absolutely welcome people to come use our stock exchanges.
You sometimes go to international geothermal meetings. Is it odd to represent a country that has no geothermal installations yet?
Since 2007, when we started, we have been taken a lot more seriously by international folk than we have been by people at home. The international folks look at what our country has, and they'd love to be operating here. This is a safer place to operate than Kenya or Ethiopia and some of the other developing nations that are still dealing with things like corruption and safety. So it is a little bit bewildering to everybody that we would leave fallow the resource that we have.
How quickly could a project get built in Canada?
People would tell you that it can take anywhere from four to seven years to build a project. That is true under certain scenarios, but a lot of it is because of delays in permitting and regulation. It takes only about 30 days to drill a geothermal well, [then] at least 18 months to order and build a site-specific power plant. With purpose, we can have one on line in under two years.
A decade from now, will we have geothermal projects up and running in Canada?
Ten years from now, it is going to be something everybody loves, like they do in other countries. It has nowhere to go but up.
This interview has been edited and condensed