The authority that promotes energy development in Cumberland County hosted an energy symposium this week to discuss opportunities, and challenges, with Springhill's geothermal system.

It was a chance for the public to learn more about the heating and cooling potential that's right under their feet, according Devin MacAskill, an energy expert from Cape Breton University.

He's been tasked with heading a team to build on the research on the underground system, and says "some people don't realize the resource they're sitting on."

"The resource has been studied for 30 years plus and we are trying to collect all of the available information that have been taken over the years," he says. 

How it works

Springhill's geothermal potential arose after its old mine shafts were abandoned and flooded with underground water.

Water is pumped from shallow parts of the old mine system and run through heat pumps at the surface. It returns to the mines after use. 

The resulting energy is powerful enough to heat or cool residential, commercial or industrial buildings. 

MacAskill and his team will eventually put together a report on geothermal energy potential for the Cumberland Energy Authority.

"It's more than just tapping into [geothermal energy]," he says. "The idea behind it is economic development, trying to prove its value so that companies would consider relocating to the Springhill area to save money on their heating and cooling costs."

"The technology has come a long way since [1989]. The knowledge of the former mine and the geothermal resource has grown since then, so I think there's a huge potential for taking advantage of the resource in a bigger and better way than before."

Success stories

There are a number of examples MacAskill highlighted in his presentation this week that show where geothermal energy is being used successfully in Springhill.

  • Ropak Packaging's climate control is 100 per cent geothermal, with no back-up system except for a baseboard in their office. The system has been operating for 26 years. 
  • The Nova Scotia Community College's Cumberland Campus has been operating geothermal in part of its building for six years with little maintenance.
  • Surrette Battery has been operating geothermal for 26 years.
  • GOVRC Workshop, a vocational centre, began using geothermal in 1993. It's used in three buildings, including a greenhouse.
  • The Springhill Community Centre has been using geothermal for 11 years for climate control and cooling ice-making equipment.

Challenges

MacAskill also noted some of the challenges facing geothermal in Springhill.

  • The wells, to date, are relatively shallow in the mine workings.
  • Oxidation of mine water could clog well pumps and heat pumps.
  • Collapses during well drilling.
  • Well pumps failing unexpectedly and unpredictably, with some leaking due to corrosion.
  • Very little ongoing data.

MacAskill says some number crunching is required when it comes to showing how a business could save money by not using oil burners.

He says only a small portion of the Springhill mines have been explored and that deeper wells into deeper parts of the mine could lead to potentially warmer water.