County Sustainability Group Canada has vast geothermal potential

Canada has vast geothermal potential

Near surface in West and North; Hot rocks could produce more power than country consumes, federal report says

By MARGARET MUNRO, Postmedia News September 14, 2011

A "massive" store of clean, renewable energy is sitting at Canadians' feet, according to a federal report on geothermal energy.

Tapping into hot rocks that are tantalizingly close to the surface in western and northern Canada could generate more electricity than the entire country now consumes and generate few greenhouse gas emissions, says the report by a team of 12 scientists led by Stephen Grasby of the federal Geological Survey of Canada.

"As few as 100 projects could meet Canada's energy needs," according to the team's findings, to be presented at a geothermal conference in Toronto on Thursday.

The 322-page report suggests the clean, renewable source of energy could be a game-changer.

"Canada's in-place geothermal power exceeds one million times Canada's current electrical consumption," the report says.

The heat is closest to the surface in large swaths of British Columbia, Alberta, the Yukon and Northwest Territories, but the report says geothermal energy opportunities exist across Canada.

The report says that geothermal has distinct advantages over not only fossil fuels and nuclear energy but also wind, solar and biofuels, as the Earth's heat is available 24 hours a day, year-round.

Grasby said that geothermal is not without technological and environmental risks.

But there is no question there is a vast amount of clean energy underfoot, he said, adding that the country is well placed to start drilling for it.

"Of anywhere in the world, Canada has the technology and knowledge to move this forward," Grasby said, pointing to expertise devised for energy exploration and mining.

Co-author Michael Moore, an expert on geothermal energy at the University of Calgary, said Canada should be testing advanced geothermal energy systems, as they promise an assured source of clean, reliable energy. Geothermal is free of the greenhouse gases generated by electricity plants powered by coal and other fossil fuels, he said, and it sidesteps the problems with nuclear power, which are making headlines again this week after an explosion at a nuclear waste treatment site in France.

"It is just silly not to take advantage of a heat source like this," Moore said.

Canada's fledgling, and in many ways frustrated, geothermal energy industry welcomed the federal report.

Craig Dunn, chief executive officer of Borealis GeoPower in Calgary, said "people often look at us like we're crazy" when trying to promote Canada's "phenomenal" geothermal resource. "Well, now we can now point to this report by a team of very reputable people," Dunn said.

Temperatures at the centre of the Earth hover around 5,500 degrees Celsius, which is about as hot as the sun's surface.

The lava spewing out of volcanoes, and hot water from geysers and hot springs, give just a glimpse of the heat available within five kilometres of the surface.

One of the biggest advantages of geothermal is that it is constantly available.

"You don't need the wind to blow or the sun to shine," said Alexander Richter, director of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association.

The biggest downside to geothermal energy is the high upfront costs.

Wells must be drilled kilometres deep to bring the heat to the surface and plants must be built to turn the heat into electricity.

It takes five to seven years to get a geothermal energy system operating, Richter said.

But once the plant is in place the energy, at least in theory, would flow indefinitely, said Richter, whose association is looking to Ottawa for more technical and regulatory support.

Geothermal energy has long been used in Iceland to directly heat homes and buildings, and it is increasingly used in the U.S. and elsewhere to generate electricity.

In conventional geothermal systems, hot water is drawn up and used to drive generators to produce electricity.

Canada has yet to plug into geothermal electricity but there are several small projects on the drawing boards in western and northern Canada.

But those projects just scratch the surface, said Richter and his colleagues.

They estimate there are at least 5,000 megawatts of geothermal electricity available in B.C., Alberta and the Yukon.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette



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