At the end of last year, on a leased property two hours southeast of Regina, Saskatchewan, a local company, Deep Earth Energy Corp., began preparations for Canada’s first geothermal power plant.
Unlike other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, geothermal energy runs 24/7, and isn’t subject to seasonal variations as with hydroelectric. According to CanGEA, the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, Canada has enough geothermal potential to supply at least 5% of its electricity via geothermal. So why is this only Canada’s first plant?
The country’s abundance of other energy sources—such as oil and coal in Alberta, nuclear power in Ontario, and hydroelectric in Quebec and British Columbia—certainly haven’t helped. And investors have been understandably wary of betting millions on an industry with notoriously slow startup times and few viable sites.
If successful, the company’s planned 5 MW pilot plant will produce enough energy to serve around 5,000 homes.
At first glance, it may seem strange that the landlocked province of Saskatchewan would be the birthplace of geothermal energy in Canada. Aside from the fact that Saskatchewan is one of the country’s top producers of oil and gas, almost all geothermal plants around the world, from the Philippines to Iceland, are found near and around tectonic plate boundaries where hot underground reservoirs are located relatively close to the surface. Logic says that British Columbia and the Yukon, where the Pacific plate meets the North American plate, would make the most sense.
But Southern Saskatchewan is nowhere near any plate boundaries, and that’s where binary cycle technology comes in.
Deep Earth plans to use this technology to harness the relatively cooler 120°C heat of a vast underground hot sedimentary aquifer first discovered by a US oil company, Amerada Petroleum, in the 1950s. The 40,000 square kilometer aquifer is larger than Vancouver Island and has the potential to produce hundreds of megawatts of power. Each 5MW plant would appear as little more than a couple of Quonset huts dotting the landscape with the rest of the action happening three kilometres underneath the prairie grass—a familiar scene, given the region’s existing development of oil and gas.
Ultimately, the project’s biggest problem might be money. With $4 million already spent on feasibility studies, Kirsten Marcia, the CEO of Deep Earth, said she still needs to raise $5 million more from investors before she can receive approval for the loans that will finance construction of the plant itself. And because typical geothermal projects can take more than ten years to start—and sometimes fail entirely if the characteristics of the underground reservoir don’t meet expectations—it doesn’t take much for investors to lose faith and funding to dry up.
Borealis Geopower’s project near Valemount, BC is still stuck in the preliminary exploration phase, while another promising project near Pemberton, BC was abandoned in 2014 after Ram Power Corp. spent $30 million drilling exploratory wells only to find that the resource was not good enough.
Generations of Power
When they do work as planned, the returns of a successful geothermal plant are impressive. At current electrical prices in Saskatchewan ($0.10/kwh), a rough calculation suggests that Deep Earth’s $40 million project could pay for itself in just 15 years—and then continue to produce energy for many decades more. The world’s oldest geothermal electricity generator, located in Larderello, Italy, has been operating for over 100 years. Though it started off small with a single 250 KW dynamo in 1913, the combined geothermal generating capacity of the region now tops 700 MW.
Although Deep Earth’s 5 MW plant may seem puny compared with the gigawatts of wind power going up around the country, it’s the first step to proving that geothermal is a viable contender for clean energy in Canada, too. And the nascent geothermal industry hopes that funding will snowball once the first plant is pumping power into the Canadian grid. Geothermal may be a big gamble, but the potential payoffs are too great to pass up. If we truly want to wean our country and the rest of the world off fossil fuels, we must fully exploit all options available to us.
Written by Alexander Loschberger. Originally published by Vice Motherboard. Republished with permission for Innovate Development.
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