An aerial photograph shows the future site of the Clarke Lake Geothermal Project near Fort Nelson - which may just be the first of many similar proposals.
The future of reaching B.C.’s looming energy needs could be sitting underneath our feet — and no, it’s not oil.
Andy Hira, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., believes geothermal energy is being massively overlooked in B.C. and even Alberta. But as Hira argues in a recent working paper, the geothermal industry is still in its infancy and will need significant support from government to get off the ground.
“I think it is a chicken and the egg problem,” explained Hira. “We don’t really have the research and development or private sector infrastructure to really support geothermal. And nobody is advocating for it in an effective way.”
He added this is made worse by the fact that Site C is hogging all of BC Hydro’s fiscal room and attention, leaving little left over for other things. In 2019 BC Hydro scrapped its Standing Offer program which encouraged renewable energy projects by purchasing power from them. Hira believes this could be a major mistake as research in his paper shows a looming demand challenge even after Site C is up running.
“Site C really is going to be inadequate in about 10 years if we reach the projected energy demand required for the electrification of things like cars and LNG facilities,” he said. “It is clear that we are going to need a mixture of different renewables.”
Hira explained unlike other renewables, like wind or solar, geothermal does not have intermittency issues making it uniquely attractive. They also can operate in harsh environments, generate zero emissions and take up almost no above ground space.
Hira noted B.C. and Alberta’s expertise in oil and gas drilling could be ported over into drilling geothermal wells. It’s also possible to transform abandoned oil and gas well sites into geothermal sites. Hira says government incentives and subsidies are needed to de-risk the early work and spur innovation.
“For example, California provides no-risk loans to those searching for wells or fields and if they strike it rich the loan is paid back, but if not it is forgiven,” said Hira. “We have nothing like that in Canada.”
He believes similar incentives in Canada for electrification and direct heating/cooling could improve risk and generate investment.
Hira also noted geothermal could address power issues for remote and Indigenous communities.
“The government could support the development of geothermal sites for First Nations and remote communities,” he said. “We have an appalling situation where more than 100 remote communities rely on diesel because of intermittency issues.”
Lead or follow
Hira said parts of the U.S., the Philippines and Scandinavian countries are already developing their geothermal industries.
“The timing is right,” said Hira. “There are buds shooting out from the ground, consulting companies are rising, we see a new president down south who is turning his attention to climate change and clean tech. Now is our window of opportunity to grow world-class companies. Our own resources could be our proving ground.”
But Hira said this requires large injections of capital, an issue that has already held up a handful of geothermal energy projects in Canada.
“If we sit on our hands, we will miss the opportunity and have multinationals do the work for us,” he said.
Hira wrote the paper with Willow Grove Research Associate at the SFU Pacific Water Research Centre Nastaran Arianpoo. It is available here.
Russell Hixson is the staff writer for the Journal of Commerce where he covers the construction industry. Before that, he spent years in the U.S. as an investigative crime reporter. He lives in East Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @RussellReports.
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