It’s a source of energy that’s being touted as underappreciated, that if only we gave it a chance we could solve so many of the issues around emissions and cost. That is, if only we would do more to open our eyes to it.
It’s Geothermal: the concept of drawing heat from below the ground to power our energy needs. Proponents say all we need to do is take a look to see how powerful it is.
LISTEN: CKNW Energy Series – Is B.C. warming up to geothermal power?
In B.C., it’s seen by some as an alternative to the controversial Site C Dam project which is facing allegations of environmental damage and questionable benefits.
B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver says that project can be replaced by geothermal and other alternatives.
“Without a doubt, in fact the reason why we’re building Site C is twofold. One is to deliver into these contracts for LNG to use the electricity and the compression that could not be delivered into without building Site C, but the second is it’s the only thing BC Hydro can do.”
“BC Hydro can build natural gas factories to produce electricity, but they can’t anymore under the Clean Energy Act, so we should not be surprised that BC Hydro is building dams because that’s all they’re allowed to build,” Weaver says.
“But it’s a very expensive and old-fashioned way of delivering new power because of the fact the other renewables have dropped so substantively in recent years in terms of the cost-effectiveness of implementing them.”
WATCH: How does geothermal power work?
Meanwhile the UBC Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering Bob Evans says Geothermal may be one alternative to Site C.
“But there are a few problems with it in comparison to Site C,” he says.
“Site C is a completely proven technology and Hydro’s very familiar with hydro dams and construction, of course. And there’s very little risk in building a station like Site C.”
That said, Evans says there has been a fair bit of work done in Geothermal in the province, in areas around Meager Creek for example.
The trouble with that is it’s a relatively small plant; it would be 100 megawatts whereas Site C is something like 1,100 megawatts.”
Evans says the cost estimates per kilowatt hour would be roughly the same, but that’s not enough.
“There’s a pretty high risk in geothermal because of the unknowns about the production of electricity from it, so I think that’s where it stands from a BC Hydro point of view.”
Those risks include the need to do a lot of exploration to find the heat sources, along with varying quality of heat.
“Is it going to be very high temperatures, superheated steam, is it going to be lower temperature steam? And the well properties can change over time,” he says.
Evans adds that like hydro power, geothermal power can only be generated in very specific places, and says sites like the Meager Creek project are quite far from major transmission lines. That means the utility needs to build new, major transmission lines to link them up.
The remote location of geothermal fields can create a challenge
“Site C [is] very close to the existing very large transmission line, so that’s another advantage for the hydro dams.”
But in the meantime, are we actually missing a more day to day use for geothermal power, one that’s literally closer to home?
Doug Lockhart is the owner of Lockhart Industries, a heating and cooling installation business in Victoria and says his own clients are benefiting from using their own geothermal systems.
“One private school that I did in my area where we coupled with the ocean, we saved them over $350,000 a year and I think at last count we were over 900 tonnes of CO2 a year that we wiped out.”
“They’re laughing all the way to the bank, they spent the money at the beginning and basically because of the large energy component there, we paid for it in basically 13 months.”
But Lockhart says there are hurdles for homeowners to get past, particularly the big upfront investment.
“You go ‘you’re looking $30,000 to $35,000’ and they’re like ‘holy lightning’ so I said ‘go look at your hydro bill, you’re already buying one. The problem is [Minister of Energy and Mines Bill] Bennett is never going to buy you the geothermal,” he says.
“It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done is that you can’t seem to get people to understand that there’s two issues. There’s one that’s the cost of the equipment, but then the other is [the] actual cost of operating it… I’ve had houses 2,900 square feet that cost less than $300 a year before the two-tiered system came in; $300 a year to heat and cool their houses.”
But Lockhart says geothermal isn’t getting the support it needs to really take off.
“We just have a heck of a time trying to talk to the provincial government because it’s always about clean gas, well with geothermal we have absolutely no emissions.”
But is it still environmentally friendly when you’re taking that idea and putting it on a larger scale?
UBC Geological Engineering Professor Erik Eberhardt says geothermal has its quickest route to use at a domestic level, for home heating.
“The issue on large-scale geothermal plants is taking that heat source and converting it to electricity which requires a very large heat source, it requires a lot of water circulating in the ground to, in a sense, mine that heat, and I think that’s what’s missing is having the proven conditions,” he says.
“The question is ‘is there enough of a reservoir there to generate the electricity you need on a large scale, are those sources close to a power grid where you’re not incurring a high cost of running in power lines as well as thinking about then the loss of energy that you gain from those lines if the source is quite remote from the populated areas that need that energy.”
And there we are, back to square one.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking at new ideas and giving them a real chance and just maybe the silver bullet solution can be found.
Until then, we’re stuck with a myriad of energy options, some controversial, others oversold.
Is the biggest challenge to solving energy issues asking ourselves how flexible do we want to be to meet them?