Renewable energy is all the talk nowadays as governments and experts around the world begin to see it as the future of the energy industry. In Canada specifically 17.3% of our electricity is generated by renewables, with most of the generation coming from hydro stations, biomass factories, and wind farms. Solar is less prominent in Canada due to a lack of sunlight potential, but still makes up for around 0.6% of our renewable generation. However, all this data has had me thinking. As a child I remember learning about the different types of renewable energy, and the method I remember finding the most interesting is the one I also hear the least about as an adult. Geothermal energy. The idea that we could grab heat from the earth’s core and power our houses and schools seemed like a genius idea. So why are we not doing it? To understand this, we first need to understand how geothermal energy actually works.
There are three common ways to harvest heat beneath the earth’s surface, and turn it into electricity. The first is a dry steam plant which collects steam from fractures in the ground, and uses that steam to power a turbine and create electricity. Method two is a flash plant which harvests high pressurized hot water from underground and mixes it with low pressurized cooler water to create steam. Once again, this steam is used to rotate a turbine and create electricity. The last method is something called a binary plant which collects hot water and then passes it by another fluid with a much lower boiling point. This causes the secondary liquid to vaporize, thereby creating steam and turning a turbine. Binary plants are the most environmentally friendly of the three, and release almost zero CO2 emissions. On top of this, these plants can run all day everyday as they do not require wind or sun. They are relatively inexpensive to operate making them very profitable over the long run. They have a small geological footprint and can generate electricity, heat, and cooling directly.
So why are we not building them? The United States of America is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, and yet Canada produces almost none. Canada has an abundant amount of potential for geothermal energy too, specifically in BC which lies within the Pacific Ring of Fire (a horseshoe shaped area full of active volcanos and earthquake zones). Even in Ontario, if you dug deep enough, you would be able to produce geothermal energy. On top of this, there already exists Canadian companies which operate geothermal plants outside of Canada, but not within Canada. So, to finally get to the point, here are the main reasons geothermal is not a prominent method of generation in Canada:
- Canada has plenty of cheap energy resources already. In BC and Yukon where the geothermal potential is greatest, there exists large hydropower stations which are both cheap and efficient. The BC government continues to invest in their hydropower, and easily meets their customer consumption demands. Investing in geothermal just seems like a waste of money and time.
- The upfront cost is too high for the risk. Drilling for geothermal deposits is just as complicated as drilling for oil and gas. Large amounts of research and construction must be done before any electricity is generated, making the costs seem not worth it.
- There is very minimal government interest. Many locations for rich geothermal energy are also locations for rich amounts of oil and gas. The government would rather produce more oil to increase exports than invest in a new process.
Another issue that is not specific to Canada is that geothermal plants release large amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas into the air. The gas particles break down within a few days, but its initial high concentration levels can be hazardous to aquatic life, birds, and animals. Other waste chemicals can also be produced as a by-product which can contain varying health risks. Finally geothermal sites don’t last forever and their resource deposits can be depleted after a minimum of a few decades.
It may seem like geothermal energy will never exist in Canada, but I wouldn’t be so certain. The recent implementation of a carbon tax across the country may begin to cause oil and gas companies to look to invest their resources into more environmentally friendly areas of energy. The easiest transition for these companies would be to begin investing in geothermal energy which involves similar exploration and drilling processes. Unfortunately it is far too early to determine what will happen with geothermal energy in Canada. I can only hope that in the future, more people will see its true potential as a viable way to generate energy.
By: Tyler Murphy