British Columbia

Reality Check | B.C.'s geothermal potential

Green Party Leader Jane Sterk wants B.C. to be an energy powerhouse, but instead of LNG, she's touting geothermal energy. CBC's Reality Check team finds out whether this is spin or fact.

B.C.'s geothermal potential

10 years ago
Duration 2:08
The Green Party's claims about B.C.'s geothermal potential are true

Green Party Leader Jane Sterk wants B.C. to be an energy powerhouse but instead of pinning her hopes on LNG exports as B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark has done, the Greens want to dig into the earth's surface.

CBC's Reality Check team drills into this claim to find out whether this is spin or fact.

"The Green Party believes we can be a clean tech powerhouse. In terms of our renewable energy strategies, we have geothermal potential," says Sterk. "We are the only jurisdiction in the Ring of Fire that doesn't have geothermal power in place."

The Ring of Fire — so-called because it is the horseshoe-shape region stretching along the Pacific Ocean where three out of every four of the world's most active and dormant volcanoes are located — has given B.C. an abundance of geothermal energy and many hot springs.

It's a huge energy source underneath the surface that B.C. hasn't harnessed yet to its full potential, say federal scientists and the lobby group for the industry.

Canada lags

One type of geothermal technology, heat pumps, have been used as power sources in individual buildings in B.C., but other countries have been using geothermal heat sources to produce power for their energy grids for decades.

Green Party Leader Jane Sterk says B.C. needs to fulfill its geothermal potential. (CBC)

New Zealand has been producing geothermal-sourced power since 1958 and Italy for nearly a century. Iceland, once reliant on peat and imported coal, now uses geothermal power for two-thirds of its energy needs.

Scientists say Canada, specifically northern Alberta and British Columbia, holds tremendous reserves of geothermal power, much of it in vast reserves of underground hot springs. Canada's in-place geothermal power exceeds one million times the country's current electrical consumption.

But just because it's there, that doesn't mean we can access it easily or economically.

For nearly a century, geologists knew there was oil in Alberta. But it's only been in the last few decades that technology has made it possible to extract it.

"Geologists recognized the importance of the oil sands back in the 1800s. It was known for a long time that there was vast potential there but it's only been in the last 30 to 40 years that barrels of oil could be produced from that resource," says Stephen Grasby, a scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada.

"There is potential but the next question is what is viable for development."

Grasby says Canada hasn't had the same needs as other countries such as Iceland and the U.S. to import fuel because we can get cheap hydro and hydrocarbon power. 

A bigger stumbling block, he says, is no one yet has been able to figure out how to make the economic case for harnessing geothermal energy.

"There appears to be a lot of interest. My impression is everyone wants to see if it works before they get too committed to it," he says.

Alison Thompson, chair of the industry group Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, says the industry could use more support from the government.

"On the government's part, I think there is a perception that geothermal is risky," she says. "That it is uneconomic."

Not a fringe resource

Thompson says the size and quality of Canada's geothermal reserves are significant.

"It's not a fringe resource. It's unbelievable we haven't done anything with it."

The United States is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world and Mexico is ranked usually third or fourth. Of the dozen countries along the Pacific Ring of Fire, six of them are in the top eight of highest producers of geothermal energy, she says.

"It's competitive around the world. There is no reason to believe it wouldn't be competitive in British Columbia's open market as well."

Both Thompson and Grasby say there are legitimate concerns and barriers to getting geothermal energy to consumers.

Some of the best sources of geothermal power are in remote sections of the province where extraction can be costly and more importantly too far away to connect to an existing power grid.

Then, there are other risks as well that companies must take when they drill: Go down deep enough and hot water may bubble up but the reserves might not be large enough to sustain long-term power creation.

Still, other countries — from El Salvador to the Philippines, to Mexico and the U.S. — have proven it works. In California, nearly five per cent of its energy needs are generated by geothermal power.

In reality-checking the Green Party's claims that we have huge potential and remain the only jurisdiction not tapping into geothermal power, we did our own digging and found the claims are true.

With files from the CBC's Steve Lus