People all over the world have been using geothermal energy for thousands of years, so why isn’t BC?
“All the countries on the Pacific Rim have developed geothermal, except Canada,” said Dr. Mory Ghomshei, adjunct professor of Energy Resources and Systems atthe University of British Columbia. Geothermal is one of the greenest ways to generate electricity.
Modern geothermal plants produce almost zero emissions, and geothermal energy production is more predictable than solar, wind, and even hydroelectric power. It is created continuously by forces under the earth’s surface, so the power it produces stays constant no matter the time of day, weather, or season.
Turkish baths, Japanese onsens, and Icelandic hot pots are just a few incarnations of hot-tubbing culture in civilizations that have access to natural hot springs.
Italy was the first country to take advantage of the electricity that hot water from the ground can generate, building the world’s first geothermal power plant in 1913. The United States followed suit, building their first plant in Northern California in 1921.
Now, the modern geothermal power plants in Northern California produce enough electricity for more than one million people each year. Worldwide, at least 20 countries use geothermally generated electricity.
Case Study: Iceland
Every Icelander knows at least one secret spot, not too far into the wilderness, where they can bathe in a natural hot pool. Hot water is so plentiful that in Reykjavík, hot water arrives to homes by pipe straight from the nearby combined heat and power plant, Nesjavellir. It comes out piping hot from the tap instead of from a water heater.
When Icelanders turn up the thermostats in their homes, that’s geothermal too. Icelandic homes are heated 89 per cent by geothermal hot water, and about 10 per cent by electricity. That means less than one per cent by fossil fuels.
Iceland’s fiery natural resource is also used to generate a large part of the country’s electricity. The state-owned Nesjavellir geothermal power plant provided about 24.5 per cent of Iceland’s electricity in 2008, and the soon-to-be opened Hellisheidi, another combined geothermal heat and power plant, will increase that proportion, said Jónas Ketilsson, a scientist and Project Manager of Geothermal Development and Research at the National Energy Authority of Iceland.
Meanwhile hydroelectric dams supplied the rest of the country’s electricity. That was 75.5 per cent in 2008. Less than one per cent of Iceland’s electricity is made by burning fuel.
Iceland’s geothermal heating alone saves 4.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, per year, from the burning of environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels.
Not to mention that geothermal technology saves Icelanders the expense of buying foreign oil. They saved the equivalent of about 611 million Canadian dollars in 2009, alone.
Iceland has reaped social benefits from geothermal, too. “It has a very positive impact on tourism, social welfare, and health with public outdoor swimming pools and snow-melting that reduced injuries,” said Jónas, referring to the fact that geothermal hot water is pumped under some roads in winter to prevent them from getting icy.
The northern Atlantic country also sustains its fish farming and its production of greenhouse-grown foods with geothermal heating. Without geothermal, many of Iceland’s fruits, vegetables, and flowers would be imported, expensive, and not as fresh.
Of course, one major difference between Iceland and BC is that Iceland has hot springs coming out of its ears. Geothermal energy producers there will often dig holes to reach the hot water, but sometimes artesian wells allow it to come right to the surface for use.
In BC, on the other hand, the natural hot springs indicate there is hot water to be had, but it is mostly deep underground, so companies have to dig as much as three kilometres to reach it.
BC’s Vast Untapped Resource
That is where the expertise of Dr. Mory Ghomshei comes in. People have known British Columbia is geologically active for hundreds of years, but in 1984 Ghomshei and his team demonstrated that BC’s hidden energy could be tapped to create electricity.
BC Hydro hired Ghomshei from France to help them explore the geothermal resources at Meager Creek, in southwest BC north of Vancouver near Pemberton. There his team built a small, 40-kilowatt geothermal electricity generating station – BC’s first.
Further exploration of the area since then has yielded several promising sites, which he presented this April at the World Geothermal Congress 2010 in Bali. The findings include a site that Ghomshei conservatively estimated has the potential to produce 230 megawatts of electrical power for 30 years before it goes extinct. (Extinction of geothermal energy sites can happen when tectonic forces change the underground environment, or if power plants do not properly replenish their underground reservoirs by reinjecting the hot water they extract.)
That proposed power plant alone would fulfill about two per cent of BC’s energy needs – no mean feat.
Ghomshei’s triumph was short-lived, however, because soon after he had the plant up and running, BC Hydro underwent a massive scale-down and ditched the project.
Hydro Dominates in BC
When it comes to using our geothermal resources on a grand scale, BC has literally barely scratched the surface.
Small-scale technologies are currently used to provide heat for individual buildings. Some BC buildings are heated by geothermal heat pumps, deep holes in the ground that generate heat with the help of a small amount of electricity. Businesses in BC’s hot spring towns like Radium and Harrison also use hot water from the springs for heat. But these technologies are small potatoes compared to the amount of energy BC requires.
Why, then, is nobody tapping our province’s huge capacity to produce geothermal electricity?
This is astounding considering that, according to Ghomshei, BC’s geothermal could supply 60 per cent of BC’s electricity needs. We have a huge, clean, renewable resource that we are not taking advantage of, he said. “We have been enjoying cheap hydro.”
But as demand grows and the price of oil rises, Ghomshei said, alternative sources of electricity, like wind and especially geothermal energy production, should be developed to meet future demand.
Big hydro in BC is reaching its limits. BC is simply running out of major rivers to put dams on. Not to mention the tangle of environmental and cultural issues associated with hydro. The proposed Site C dam that is currently under consideration for construction, for example, would destroy farmland, wildlife habitat, and ancestral First Nations burial grounds.
Geothermal takes up much less land space, and is also much quicker to build. It takes five years to build a geothermal power plant compared to 10 years for nuclear power plants and large hydro projects.
BC’s potential 5,000 megawatts of geothermal energy could be developed, Ghomshei said, within the next 10 to 15 years. “But there needs to be the political will.”
The BC government’s 2002 Energy Plan made it more possible than ever for BC to produce geothermal electricity on a grand scale. The Plan says BC Hydro cannot produce geothermal itself, but that independent power producers can sell their electricity to BC Hydro, Jake Jacobs, of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, told Watershed Sentinel.
This year’s Clean Energy Act lays out more specific goals. Currently, the government is in the process of setting out the Act’s Feed-in Tariff program, governing who can feed BC Hydro’s electricity grid. It is possible the program could “target specific technologies,” including geothermal, Jacobs said.
“We have lots of geothermal resources, but they need to be connected to the grid,” said Ghomshei. “The problem is that BC needs to invest in power lines,” perhaps between 200 and 300 kilometres of them.
Currently, independent power companies must pay for their own power lines, if they have none, and for their connection into BC Hydro’s system.
Ghomshei suggested creating a corridor of power lines to Northwestern BC for energy production there, with major geothermal energy development, then branching into other forms of green power, such as wind and small hydro, which are plentiful in the area.
The Geothermal Pay-off
One reason geothermal is being ignored is because it costs so much to develop, and nobody seems to want to foot the bill. The reason it’s so expensive? Many promising geothermal areas that Ghomshei and other investigators found in BC are remote. They require expensive exploration, machinery, and expertise to build, including digging holes kilometres deep to access the reservoirs of hot water needed to run the plant. When the plant is built, the power company still has to supply power lines to connect to the grid if they want to sell any of the electricity they produce. It is a daunting project.
Because of the high start-up cost, junior geothermal companies in BC currently have a Sisyphean task before they can start making money, however lucrative the project may be in the long run. Up-front costs for exploration can be tens of thousands of dollars. “Usually smaller companies can’t do that,” said Ghomshei.
Developing a whole geothermal power plant can cost $300 million dollars or more. That’s $3,000 per kilowatt for a 100 megawatt plant.
“The bottom line is, all countries that have developed geothermal have enjoyed government incentives,” Ghomshei said. Companies that have found BC a lost cause for geothermal development have made successful businesses south of the border, boosted by US government subsidies. “The government needs to take a risk a little bit,” said Ghomshei. “Chip in some money. Give some real incentives.”
“Places that have been successful with geothermal development, including Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Italy, and California have all had government support,” he said.
Ghomshei recalled the investment that the federal government made in the Alberta oil sands, a risk that paid off enormously. He remembered a time when the sands cost the government $25 per barrel at the same time when the price of oil was nine dollars per barrel. Government incentives were huge to get the barrels rolling, but now they’re making a fortune – and an environmental mess.
Now if we could only make such a great investment without all that pollution.
Stephanie Orford is a freelance journalist based out of Burnaby. She just returned from a trip to Iceland, covered in volcanic ash.