Geothermal power – What is not to like?

So what is not to like about geothermal power and where are all of the geothermal facilities in Canada? Why is it not contributing more to energy generation in this country?

What is it and what are the benefits?

First of all, it is clean, no emissions. Geothermal involves drilling into the ground and circulating water through the pipes that are in the ground. The water then captures the heat from the ground and the heat is used to spin turbines which generate electricity. In addition, any other the excess heat maybe captured and harvested in other ways. Geothermal does not generate any greenhouse gas emissions and no air quality emissions that affect people’s health.

Second, no fuel. Operating costs are low and not based on any fuel based commodity so the costs have less volatility than fossil fuel based power plants.  You could argue that the hot water from the crust is the fuel source.  Of course the heat that is harvested from the earth would need to be consistent in order to deliver consistent energy and heat load.

Thirdly, it is generally based on relatively well established technology.  Whether it be a combined heat and power plant or a turbine and heat recovery, these technologies are well established.  Certainly the big companies are continuing to innovate and refine them, but the risk of non-performance of the heat and energy recovery would be expected to be low.  Possibly the piping to move the energy and the hot water could be more susceptible to non performance, since there could be corrosion issues.

Fourthly, geothermal can contribute to base load generation: Unlike wind and solar, geothermal is not intermittent It is constant and can be managed in that way.  This is a major advantage over most other renewable sources of energy except for hydro.  This means that geothermal can displace nuclear and base load coal.  Replacing coal fired generation as base load generation will be a challenges in places where coal is one of the primary fuel sources (Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and the U.S.) . Geothermal could be a key energy source in transitioning away from coal and towards cleaner fuels.  The newly announced Clean Power Plan , if it gets passed and through all of the court hurdles could incent this in the U.S.

What are the potential constraints and barriers?

Location, location, location:  Geothermal is very regional based so far. It is built around sites where there is active venting at the surface and there are not a lot of spots in the country that meet this condition.

Competing interests:  This overlaps a bit with the location one, since wherever there are hot springs, humans have built generally built a tourism sector and hot springs are attractive. There are concerns that geothermal will harvest all of the heat and water and the local hot springs will no longer be as good as they once were.  Not an unrealistic thought.  This also speaks to the social licence for geothermal.

One of the only ways to counter this is to have more projects that show that the geothermal plants can operate without impacting the quality of the hot springs. However few communities want to let projects get built unless they can see from previous projects that there is no impact (classic chicken and egg).

Understanding: Another possibility could be that with the growth of other new energy sources like wind and renewable, people including investors could be wondering “why do we even need this geothermal, let’s grow solar and wind and we can think about geothermal and the role it will play later when we need it.”  This thought is not entirely logical since investment is going into research into tidal energy or offshore wind which have larger technical barriers than geothermal. This though process also means that financing may not be as easily available.

Lack of knowledge of the potential opportunity:  Geothermal resource mapping is expensive and not as easy to do as for other energy sources.  Clearly places where there is heat venting and hot springs are prime candidates to start.  To understand the true potential of geothermal in any area a significant amount of drilling needs to take place to determine temperature profiles and others aspects. In the past the sector has piggybacked or attempted to piggyback off of oil and gas drilling and this continues.  It strikes me that a secondary business for the oil service sector could be to provide drilling services to the geothermal sector and to provide information and data from drilling to the sector to use in their mapping.

Confusion with fracking sector: I think with all of the drilling involved in mapping the resource and some of the impacts from fracking, maybe there is some confusion of geothermal with oil fracking.  With geothermal, there is no “fracking” where the rocks are fractured with high pressure to release oil or gas.  The drilling for geothermal is very similar to the drilling for oil and gas exploration.

Higher capital costs:  One aspect of geothermal plants is that they have higher capital costs than some other forms of generation.  They need to install the power generation plant as well as the all of the piping to transfer the heat from the ground to the water in the pipes.  However, as already mentioned operating costs will be lower and prices for power can be locked in with power purchase agreements, so you would think that should be enough to offset the risks of higher capital costs.  Carbon pricing can also only help the economics of geothermal.

I still think that geothermal has a bright future and requires some vision, a government to set some policies right, hard work.  The best locations would be locations with a good heat source close to the surface, with some experience with oil and gas drilling, an electricity source that is reliant on coal, some form of carbon pricing and experience with large capital projects.  Alberta and Saskatchewan seem like prime location, maybe BC as well.

For more information:

Borealis geopower mentions many of these as well in the following presentation on slide 22

The Canadian geothermal association has these points and more at their website.

CBC has a recent article on their website and another one here.