Canada’s Vast Geothermal Resources Reveal Evidence of Global Warming

Geothermal Canada

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Here’s a startling coincidence. A first-ever assessment of Canada’s shallow geothermal resources has exposed some of the country’s clearest evidence yet of global warming.

The study, published in the journal Natural Resource Research (payment required) and brought to light by Tyler Cowen in the Toronto Star, sought to evaluate the prospect of emissions-free geothermal energy down to 250 meters.

What it found was a "vast" potential of shallow hot rocks all across Canada – equivalent to more than 190 million barrels of oil. It also found that climate change was a factor.

Global warming has caused ground temperatures to climb across Canada over the past few decades, according to the research. As shallower depths warmed up, the temperature differences at 50 meters, 100 meters and 200 meters – typically large – shrunk.

The data, says study co-author Stephen Grasby of the Geological Survey of Canada, provides

"one of the best records of climate warming there is in Canada.

"Depending on where you are ground temperature has increased by a few [Celsius] degrees."

Evidence of accelerated warming is never good. But there is a silver – and even green – lining in this discovery, say the researchers. Climate-induced heat trapped inside the rocks offers the nation a shot at "significant CO2 reduction."

The research argues that shallow geothermal energy could be tapped through "geo-exchange" technologies and used in heating homes and buildings. The numbers suggest it would be worth a go at it.

According to the authors, geothermal energy in the first 50 meters alone is roughly equivalent to the commercially recoverable energy in all of the dirty Alberta tar sands. Even if just a fraction of what the research has unveiled is recoverable, "it’s still going to potentially make a marked impact on renewable-energy supply," Grasby said. 

See Tyler Cowen’s terrific blog, Clean Break, for more on the findings.

There are two important things to keep in mind here. One, this isn’t the first study to reveal Canada’s wealth of underground hot rocks, and it won’t be the last. The nation has enormous potential for both shallow and deep geothermal power.

Two, it has yet to even begin to unlock it, even as other nations jump ahead. As Cowen reminds us:

Canada is the only country located on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" that has not developed its high-temperature geothermal resources on a commercial scale.

In January, the Pembina Institute, a Canadian not-for-profit environmental policy research group, published what may be the most compelling case to date for deep geothermal drilling in the province of Alberta, especially in regard to Enhanced Geothermal Systems (EGS).

(EGS refers to the "unconventional" geothermal systems that require engineered reservoirs to become economical, due to a lack of water and/or permeability in the rocks.)

Find the report here. Here’s a snippet:

The most detailed study to date in Alberta suggests that the [EGS] potential in the province may be enormous. An estimated 21 billion GWh of energy are released every year underneath the surface of Alberta at depths of less than 5 km.128 Even with the conservative assumption that only 0.5% of this potential is recoverable, it represents the equivalent of roughly 14,000,000 MW of generating capacity, more than 1,100 times the current total installed generating capacity in Alberta.129 This amount does not include potential resources deeper than 5 km. That’s more than 1,100 times the current total installed generating capacity in Alberta.

What about costs?

Costs are no less certain than CCS which has already received significant public investments both provincially and federally. The potentially vast scale of geothermal resources in Alberta warrants significant consideration in this same vein.

The considerable experience Albertans have with drilling for oil and gas, a practice that is easily transferable to geothermal electric technologies, would seem to be a promising factor. Too bad there’s no political will in the province to begin to harvest the heat.

Last week, the US Energy Department pledged $84 million for geothermal energy projects. The Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) is now angling for funds from its own government. The organization has said it will be in Ottawa this week with Natural Resources Canada to discuss matching the US investment.

What are the odds of that happening?

Put it this way, CanGEA’s goal is to develop 5,000 megawatts of hot rock projects by 2015. It needs to study some 30 potential sites to start, and it wants just $1 million to do it. But it can’t raise the funds – this at a time when Ottawa is throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at still unproven, risky and expensive carbon capture and storage technologies.

CanGEA will hold its first major geothermal industry conference on Earth Day, April 22. Let’s hope for progress.

For now, there’s no escaping it: As the Pembina Institute declared in its media release of January 29 – and SolveClimate has been documenting for months now – these are "dark days for green energy in Canada."

See also:

Report Warns Tar Sands a Risky Bet for Investors

While Ottawa Sleeps, Ontario Takes Great Leap Forward on Climate

Canada Dumps Vital Renewable Energy Incentives for “Clean” Coal

Canada Trip Is Big Test of Obama Climate Policy

Dirty Oil Video: Canada’s Tar Sands Explained

A Must-Read Book on Tar Sands for Obama Before His Trip to Canada