Old volcanoes, big energy

Volcanoes beneath mountains near Whistler, B.C., hold a big green energy promise. But can scientists and industry deliver?

Beneath the mountains near Whistler, B.C., old volcanoes are heating underground reservoirs of water up to 260 C — temperatures scalding enough to generate power.

Geologist Steve Grasby hopes this hot water, hidden under foot, will play a big role in Canada’s effort to get off fossil fuels and avoid further climate havoc.

Grasby, a senior research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and other researchers from across Canada are currently exploring the geothermal energy potential of Mount Meager, and neighbouring Mount Cayley, two literal hot spots in a ring of volcanoes north of Vancouver.

Tapping these mountains for steam to create electricity isn’t a new idea. But now, federal emissions targets, advanced drilling technology and incentives from the federal and B.C. governments could make this the moment for projects to take off.

The glacier on Mount Meager, a dormant volcano near Whistler, B.C., that scientists and a Calgary company are looking at for geothermal energy. (Ousama Farag/CBC)
Geologist Steve Grasby, of the Geological Survey of Canada, stands on the Mount Meager glacier. (Jill English/CBC)

Original wells on Mount Meager — drilled more than four decades ago, long abandoned — are now in the hands of a new company, which says the mountain could hold potential to power as many as 100,000 homes. Mount Meager is one of a few sites across Canada poised to be the first in the country to harness geothermal heat for power — and in this case, green hydrogen.

Researchers are already mapping out Mount Meager’s promise, gathering data that paints a picture of the insides of the mountain: where the hot reservoirs are and where it could be most easily drawn out to create green energy.

An abandoned site with new promise

In Canada, people aren’t used to the idea that we have volcanoes, said Grasby, who does geothermal research in the Garibaldi volcanic belt near Whistler, B.C. “But we actually have hundreds of volcanoes.”

There are hundreds of volcanoes in Canada, including many in the Garibaldi belt near Whistler, B.C. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

In the mid-1970s, the Canadian government started a series of alternative energy research programs, including an effort to map geothermal potential across Canada — looking both for sources warm enough to heat buildings and even hotter ones to generate electricity, like the hidden volcanoes.

To heat a building, the hot liquid itself would be piped to a nearby home or office. For the prized volcanic sources, drilling is required to access reservoirs in the rocks, releasing steam, which turns a turbine, generating electricity with negligible emissions.

Mount Meager, part of the Garibaldi volcanic belt, turned out to be a hotspot, with scientists in the 1980s recording temperatures up to 260 C, said Grasby.

Garibaldi volcanic belt




Thermal spring

Mount Meager





30 km

©Mapcreator | OSM.org

Garibaldi volcanic belt



Mount Meager


Mount Cayley



Thermal spring

30 km

©Mapcreator | OSM.org

Garibaldi volcanic belt



Mount Meager


Mount Cayley



Thermal spring

30 km

©Mapcreator | OSM.org

Canada’s geothermal research program, which ran for a decade, was prompted by the 1970s energy crisis and concerns over energy security.

“Governments were investing in research, [were] looking for other sources of energy because there was concern over access to oil from the Middle East and just energy supply in general,” said Grasby.

The geothermal research program was abruptly shut down in the mid-1980s when the price of oil fell.

Two decades later, Grasby was tasked with assessing the geothermal potential across Canada, only this time the motivation was climate change. Luckily for him, many of the retired scientists had held onto their research.

“It was just a big treasure hunt,” said Grasby, who found boxes in basements and garages. “The word got out, right, and then people were just sending it all to me.”

In 1981, scientists drilled a well at Mount Meager to look at the potential for geothermal energy there. (Submitted by Alan Jessop, former Natural Resources Canada scientist)
That same wellhead in 2022. Today, advanced drilling techniques developed for oil and gas drilling make geothermal energy more accessible on the site. (Molly Segal/CBC)

Despite its potential, those lost decades mean Canada is far behind compared to other countries with volcanoes that provide temperatures great enough for electricity generation.

Iceland generates 30 per cent of its electricity from geothermal energy; and the resource accounted for 17 per cent of power in New Zealand in 2017. According to the International Energy Agency, the world is currently not on track with enough geothermal power projects to help meet net zero emissions by 2050.

“Until we see a first success, it’s hard to understand it’s there…and how it can be integrated into the bigger energy picture,” said Grasby, who imagines the power source playing a “huge” role in Canada because of its reliability.

LISTEN | What on Earth explores how Mount Meager might play a role in the future of geothermal energy in Canada:

The first lease of geothermal rights at Mount Meager was purchased in 1987, according to B.C.’s Ministry of Mines, Energy and Low Carbon Innovation.

No development moved forward, but now a new company, Meager Creek Development Corporation (MCDC), is hedging its bets on the promise the site holds.

“We need these early wins and this early success,” said Grasby, “then I think that’s going to help it suddenly roll out much more quickly.”

Why a company is betting $250M

At first glance, the original wells drilled at the base of Mount Meager are not much to look at.

Nestled in a clearing in the trees, they look like oversized fire hydrants. Old and rusted, one steadily drips water; on another, wasps have made themselves at home and built a nest.

But Craig Dunn, MCDC’s director, sees much more here: enough heat under the mountain to power up to an estimate of 100,000 homes — or, a “mountain” of energy, he joked.

Chief Dean Nelson, of Lil'wat First Nation, left, Craig Dunn, managing director of Meager Creek Development Corporation, centre, and Grasby look at old rock core samples at Mount Meager. Dunn, photographed at the old wellhead, says his company hopes to develop geothermal energy at the dormant volcano as a power source to create hydrogen fuel. (Jill English/CBC, Ousama Farad/CBC)

However, selling electricity is not what the company hopes to do with all of the potential energy.

Instead, it plans to use the electricity to separate hydrogen molecules from water — an energy-intensive but very low carbon way to make what’s known as “green” hydrogen. That fuel, Dunn says, could be used in transport, replacing gas and diesel-powered vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells.

Dunn said Meager Creek Development Corporation’s project would qualify for carbon credits under B.C.’s low carbon fuel standard, a regulation that would also encourage industries like transport to switch to low and zero-emitting fuel sources such as green hydrogen.

Plus, hot water that was previously inaccessible can now be reached because of advancements in drilling technology from the oil and gas sector, he said.

“The Meager Creek resource … was very much seen as a stranded resource,” said Dunn.


Meager Creek Development Corporation, purchased by Calgary-based Terrador Energy Inc. in 2021, holds the geothermal lease on the site until 2037, with annual rent of $42,630.

The company estimates a total cost of $250 million for the completion of a 32-megawatt geothermal power plant and an accompanying green hydrogen plant, aiming for completion in 2025.

Dunn, who previously worked in the fossil fuel industry, calls himself a “recovering oil and gas geologist.”

While he gets teased by people in the fossil fuel sector that he “bought a volcano,” the overlap in expertise is clear. He gets questions like, “Hey, do you need a drill rig?” or, “Do you need some geophysics work done?”

“It’s awesome to tap into that extraordinary experience,” said Dunn.

WATCH | How volcanoes might be used as a sustainable energy solution:

Grasby, who is also based in Calgary, agrees that knowledge from the oil industry in Canada can be applied to geothermal energy.

“I think no one in the world knows how to drill wells better than Canadians,” he said. “If anyone can unlock it, it’s going to be Canadian technology I think.”

There are, of course, challenges beyond just drilling wells.

In 2010, Mount Meager had a landslide, causing Meager Creek to flood and forcing the evacuation of nearby homes — a risk that is forecast to only rise with climate change.

A landslide at Mount Meager in August 2010 caused Meager Creek to flood, trapping campers and forcing nearby evacuations. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Chief Dean Nelson, of the nearby Lil’wat First Nation, is touring the site with Grasby and Dunn, and is hopeful about the project, but has questions before things move forward.

Among them: Lil’wat Nation wants assurances that the scientists and industry involved will come together to pay for an early-warning system for landslides.

“We want … a warning system that lets us know exactly what’s happening,” said Nelson, calling it a main condition for further development of the site.

Historically excluded, the Lil’wat Nation wants a say

About a 70-kilometre drive southeast of Mount Meager, you’ll arrive at the community of Lil’wat Nation.

About 1,500 people live there, including many children, says Nelson — who he calls a big part of the future he’s fighting for, where the Lil’wat Nation determines what development happens on its territory.

It’s “very important for children and youth to understand … that we have that right to be there,” he said.

Dean Nelson is chief of Lil’wat Nation, located about 70 kilometres southeast of Mount Meager. His community wants to ensure that any project includes an early-warning system for landslides. (Jill English/CBC)

There has been development on Lil’wat territory for years, including logging, however, he said his community was “never a part” of the environmental decisions or the economic benefit.

Despite that exclusion, when it comes to geothermal exploration and development, his goals are not just about money.

“It’s a whole shift in life,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for everything to be looked at,” including what roles his community has in determining what happens on its traditional territory.

He hopes people from the Lil’wat Nation will be hired for jobs beyond labour, “more stewardship” or holding central roles in the project.

Currently, Lil’wat Nation is consulting its community members about the project. Chief Nelson wants to understand how the development of a geothermal power plant and hydrogen plant will impact the First Nation. “What is in it for them?” he asks.

Scientists are still trying to create a precise map of where the heat is in the Garibaldi belt, developing a 3D image of sorts to track what's underground. (Molly Segal/CBC)

Dunn says Meager Creek Development Corporation is continuing to engage with Lil’wat Nation.

“We have an opportunity here to show how we can work with local First Nations to develop a green energy resource and have them actively involved in that process,” he said.

“I don’t really use that reconciliation word, but that is the underlying tone to everything that we are included in,” said Nelson.

Paving the way for more geothermal power

As industry tries to pave a way to profit in the Garibaldi belt, scientists are still at work, trying to create a more precise map of where the heat is, and what might be accessible.

The potential here is attracting people from around the world to help answer questions about what is possible — and where to drill.

Fateme Hormozzade studied petroleum engineering in Iran, but moved to Canada for a PhD position at Carleton University.

Where the top universities in Iran focus on fossil fuels and extraction techniques, Hormozzade had other ideas.

“I had a goal in my life to contribute for a clean Earth,” she said. “I wanted to change the path that I was taking, so that’s why I came to Canada.”

The information she gathers helps image reservoirs that could contain hot water.

Scientists are looking for those reservoirs, but also for fracture patterns in the rocks that “helps to facilitate the movement of fluids,” said Mahmud Muhammad, who came to Canada from Iraq for his PhD at Simon Fraser University, conducting research on Mount Meager.

Fateme Hormozzade, left, is shown on Mount Cayley. Hormozzade is currently working on her PhD in Earth Sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa. She came to study in Canada because of an interest in clean energy. (Jill English/CBC)

Muhammad’s work helps create a map of where those fractures are.

We’re using new tools that can see into the mountain. You can think of it like taking a CAT scan where you can kind of see… what’s in the subsurface at depth,” said Grasby.

His team uses that information to create a 3D-image of what’s beneath the volcano, whether that’s magma, reservoirs of hot water, or the fractures in rocks that allow water to easily flow — for both Mount Meager as well as nearby Mount Cayley, which also shows promising signs for geothermal.

“And if we can start to see all this, then we can put that information out and industry can decide, is this something that we want to try drilling a well and target specifically those areas that have been imaged and then you can develop a geothermal resource from that,” he said.

Having this information reduces the cost of drilling for geothermal by increasing the odds a site will be successful, which Grasby hopes will encourage more companies to take a chance on the energy source.

“It’s all part of this massive task of reaching net zero. And I don’t think there’s any one way we can do it so it’s going to be a whole spectrum of approaches,” he said.

Editing and layout: Lisa Johnson