Examining Geothermal Energy on a National Scale: Could It Be Adopted in Canada?
Updated: Feb 22
Written By: Zoe Zakrzewska
Edited By: Jackson Hejtmanek
Countries across the world are constantly looking to develop promising renewable energy technologies. Geothermal energy is one such energy resource that has become increasingly popular in the last few decades, and for which new technologies are rapidly developing. It essentially involves harnessing the power emitted from the planet’s interior, which exists in the form of thermal energy stored in the rocks and fluids of the Earth’s crust (What Is Geothermal, n.d.)
There are several different methods of extracting and using geothermal energy. For one, geothermal energy can be directly used for heat in areas where hot groundwater reaches the surface. In direct usage systems, water is pumped from the source and its heat can be used for a variety of purposes, such as heating of homes, snow melting, and agriculture (Geothermal Heating, 2022; Direct Utilization, n.d.)
Furthermore, geothermal heat can be converted into electricity; hotter energy sources are required for this process. Until very recently, only conventional hydrothermal resources, which contain an ideal combination of fluid, heat and permeable rock, have been utilized to produce electricity. However, they are limited in number and geographically concentrated in only certain locations (Roberts, 2022). Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), however, present a promising solution: this new method would allow geothermal energy to be harnessed at sites without fluid and permeable rock, thus vastly expanding the potential supply of geothermal energy (Roberts, 2022; McLelland et al., 2021)
Geothermal energy usage is growing across the world, but no other country comes close to Iceland in its widespread use of the resource. Iceland is located both on a volcanic hotspot and on the Mid-Atlantic ridge between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, making the country extremely volcanically active and thus full of many accessible geothermal energy sources (Logadóttir, 2015). Direct use of geothermal energy is extremely prevalent in Iceland. Ninety percent of the houses uses geothermal resources to heat their homes, and geothermal heat is also used widely to heat swimming pools, melt snow off sidewalks and parking areas, warm greenhouses, support aquaculture operations, and to provide industrial process heat (Direct Utilization, n.d.).
Geothermal energy is also a significant source of electricity for Iceland; it accounts for roughly twenty-five percent of all electricity produced (Electricity Generation, n.d.). Efforts to shift toward renewable energies in Iceland began in the 1970s as the country aimed to decrease its dependence on imported fossil fuels. However, the most notable increase in geothermal electricity production has occurred in the last two decades, with production jumping from roughly 1,600 GWh in 2006 to 6,000 GWh in 2019 due to the opening of several new power plants (Ragnarsson et al., 2020).
Moreover, Iceland is conducting research into further developments of geothermal energy through programs such as the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP). The IDDP is a collaborative effort between several Icelandic power companies and the national government to examine the potential of profitably extracting energy from more powerful but difficult to access geothermal sources (Ragnarsson et al., 2020; About, 2022). The project is still deep in its experimental stages, but if successful, these sources could produce higher amounts of energy at lower costs, allowing geothermal electricity to become an even more powerful industry in the energy market (Worland, 2017).
Geothermal energy’s success in Iceland establishes that this resource can be successfully utilized on a wide scale. However, Iceland’s uniquely favorable geographic, economic and social conditions were necessary to its adoption (Logadóttir, 2015). Considering this, where does the development of geothermal energy stand in Canada, and is there a future for this technology in the country?
Canada has significant geothermal energy potential, although it varies regionally. Western Canada has more volcanic and tectonic activity, as well as other favorable geological characteristics (Lopoukhine, 2014). Specifically, British Columbia, the Yukon, Alberta and the Northwest Territories are the provinces with the most promising geothermal resources. However, the use of more advanced technologies, like EGS, would allow power to be sourced in almost all other parts of the country (Palmer-Wilson, 2017).
However, Canada’s usage of geothermal energy is, at present, extremely limited. While the country sees some use for the heating and cooling of buildings and the use of heated water for recreational bathing, no areas of Canada use the resource widely. Geothermal direct use heat pumps take up a small share of the total Canadian heating and cooling market, although the industry is growing. On the other hand, around a dozen hot springs are commercially exploited for their thermal water (Raymond et al., 2015). Beside this, other direct usages of geothermal energy tend to be individual developments not present on a wider scale.
Further, there are currently no operational geothermal electricity power plants in the country, although the first such commercial project is currently under construction in Saskatchewan by Deep Earth Energy Production and is expected to power 5,000 homes every year (Ratjen, 2019). There are also several projects at varying stages of development and approval, some more ambitious that others; for instance, the Meager Creek Development Corporation hopes to utilize the geothermal energy present at Mount Meager in British Colombia to produce green hydrogen (Segal, 2022).
Canada has great potential for geothermal energy and there has been some growth in the industry in recent years, yet it lags behind Iceland and other capable nations in the development of this technology. This is primarily due to the abundance of other natural resources in Canada and the lack of regulatory support provided by Canadian governments (Ogden, 2020; Ratjen, 2019). However, this is not to say there is no bigger future for geothermal energy in Canada. In fact, quite the opposite: with technological improvements increasing profitability and increases in prices of fossil fuels due to climate change looming on the horizon, geothermal energy could soon have its industry breakthrough.
One area of particular focus is the Canadian North. In this region, communities often depend on expensive and environmentally damaging diesel as a fuel source, and geothermal electricity could be a promising substitute. In addition, direct usage applications can be used for greenhouses, which would also help combat food insecurity in remote Northern locations, and to heat homes (Advancing the Development, 2021; Buck, 2022). In fact, geothermal energy projects have already begun to emerge in the region: one example is Tu Deh-Ka Geothermal, a project one hundred percent owned by the Fort Nelson First Nation in northeastern British Columbia. They hope to use the energy to power their community, heat homes and food greenhouses, and to provide electricity to residents of the area. The Chief of the Fort Nelson First Nation expressed how important this project was toward the self-sufficiency and continued livelihood of her community, overall emphasizing that geothermal especially provides promise to the Indigenous people of the Canadian North (The Underground Power, 2021).
Other locations of interest are the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. These provinces have very high geothermal energy potential, but currently depend heavily on fossil fuels for their energy needs. However, if fossil fuel prices rise in the future due to a carbon tax or other measures, geothermal energy would become an excellent cost-effective alternative. In addition, there are many synergies between the geothermal energy and oil and gas industries. Many of the oil and gas industries’ specialized geology and engineering skills would be transferable to geothermal energy, which would significantly ease the costs of transition (Ogden, 2020). Furthermore, due to past exploratory oil and gas efforts in the area, energy industries have large amounts of temperature data on their hands that could indicate where the most promising geothermal sources are located. This data provides a huge advantage and saves the provinces from spending significant amounts of time and resources on finding potential sources from scratch (Ratjen, 2019).
Ultimately, geothermal energy is certainly a renewable energy source that has potential for growth in Canada. However, there are several limiting factors that are hindering its expansion, although usages of the resource have been growing in recent years. Overall, favorable government regulatory action, the success of new profit-maximizing geothermal technologies, and a general rise in interest in both direct usages and electricity generation will be necessary for geothermal energy to become a significant player in the Canadian renewable energy industry. Further, the widespread use a geothermal energy in Canada would not only contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but would also lead to a variety of other benefits as well, including economic growth, lower costs when transitioning away from fossil fuels, and increased autonomy and improved living conditions for remote and Indigenous communities.
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