Geothermal energy research in Alberta making strides with new technology

Researchers in the province are looking to cash in on the wealth of geothermal energy we have in Alberta. As we get closer and closer to the NDP's deadline to be off coal-fired electricity by 2030, this could be a big part of the solution.

Research maps reservoirs of hot water kilometres beneath the earth that could be converted into electricity

There are no commercial geothermal plants currently operating in Alberta, but new research is exploring that possibility. (Canadian Press)

Geothermal-generated electricity could be a piece of the answer to how Alberta can move away from coal-fired electric power in time for the NDP's 2030 deadline.

Jonathan Banks, a research scientist in the department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, is mapping the potential for geothermal power across the western part of the province, in a partnership with Alberta Innovates and Energy and Environment Solutions. That includes mapping reservoirs of water kilometres beneath our feet, that is hot enough to convert into electricity using a turbine mechanism.

The communities of Grande Prairie County, Hinton, Clearwater County, Rocky Mountain House, the Village of Caroline, the City of Grande Prairie, and the Municipal District of Greenview, are all signed on for exploratory research being done by Banks.

The exploratory research is being done within 50 kilometres of the communities and will be going on until the end of the year, at which point a comprehensive report will be drawn up detailing the commercial accessibility of the resource for geothermal plants.

As a conservative estimate, Banks said, by 2030 the province could generate a few hundred megawatts of power in a year to help replace the 6.3 gigawatts of power currently being generated by coal.

"With just a few different advances in technology, that could go over a gigawatt or more," Banks said.

The potential for commercial investment in power generation, is something Clearwater County's Reeve Pat Alexander is watching closely as a renewable opportunity.

"It would be a big boost to the economy in our community," Alexander said in an email interview.

New technology brings more potential

In addition to mapping out large reservoirs that could be used for geothermal power stations, Banks is also exploring the possibility of using lower-temperature water to generate electricity, as well as the possibility of abandoned wells as the access point. 

There's a lot of geothermal power in western Canada and we have the technology to develop it. So really the better question is why wouldn't we do this?- Jonathan Banks, research scientist, University of Alberta

Typically, Banks explains, reservoirs for geothermal need to be 100C or hotter, but there are a great deal more reservoirs that sit in the 60C to 90C range.

"In most places in the world, that temperature range is typically used for what's called 'direct-use geothermal energy,' where we're just using the heat for some industrial or commercial purpose. But we are developing technology at the university that would allow us to produce electricity from that temperature range as well," Banks explained.

If the technology is successful, electricity generation could start looking a great deal more appealing to energy producers.

"The 100C plus ones are often four kilometres or deeper, whereas the lower temperature stuff is maybe two kilometres or 2.5 kilometres. And that's a different economic story for a company."

Many oil and gas companies already have wells drilled at that depth, Banks added.

Currently there are no commercial geothermal plants operating in Alberta.

'A long, slow road' with few wagons

Commercial interest in geothermal started at least 10 years ago in the province and mapping has been going on since the '80s, Banks said.

But the province's hydrocarbon wealth has kept companies from looking elsewhere, despite the fact that the technology of geothermal energy generation runs "very parallel" to the technology already used by oil and gas companies, Banks said.

"It's just been a long, slow road, with not a lot of people driving their wagons down it. But with the downturn in the economy and with the new climate plan from the government, there's really a perfect storm of political, economic and also technological factors that are really ripening the situation right now in Alberta," he said.

If the water reservoirs are stimulated by geothermal plants, the drawbacks to geothermal energy are similar to those of fracking and natural gas extraction, that includes "induced seismicity," otherwise known as man-made earthquakes, Banks said. However, the research being done by Banks in Alberta is strictly avoiding that practice, he added.

'Why wouldn't we do this?'

"I think Alberta is perfectly situated to make the technology work," said Todd Hirsch, chief economist with ATB Financial, in an interview with CBC in July 2015.

"If we can make it work here in Alberta, then it is a cinch to sell the technology to the Chinese and the Germans and everyone else where geothermal doesn't work," Hirsch said.

"There's a lot of geothermal power in western Canada and we have the technology to develop it. So really the better question is why wouldn't we do this?" Banks said.  

"I think we as a society have, or are quickly moving to, collectively decide that we need renewable energy in our energy portfolio. We don't know how long our current hydrocarbon downturn is going to last or when the next one is going to come. And we do know that continuing to produce hydrocarbons at the rate that we do and in the manner that we do, is having a consequently negative effect on our environment. So, we need this."