Geothermal race heats up in BC… slowly

Written By Keith Norbury

The race is on to establish B.C.’s first geothermal electrical generation plant.

Among the front runners is Tu Deh-Kah, wholly owned by the Fort Nelson First Nation in the province’s northeast. The goal is to generate its first electrons by mid 2027, says Jim Hodgson, chief executive officer of the project’s parent company, Deh Tai Limited Partnership, the economic development entity of the first nation.

“There won’t be any challenges in my mind that would extend it further than that,” said Hodgson, who joined Deh Tai in 2020 after about four decades in the oil and gas industry.

Tu Deh-Kah, meaning “water in the form of steam” in Dene, aims initially to generate seven to 15 megawatts, enough to power around 10,000 homes, far exceeding the electricity needs of the 900-member nation and the nearly 5,000 Fort Nelson area residents. 

Electrical generation, though, is only part of Tu Deh-Kah’s potential.

“We just recently got funding for a community greenhouse, which we’ll be doing construction in early 2024,” said Andrea Warren, the project’s media and communications specialist. Also under consideration is an onsen spa using brine from the geothermal process.

The project has already received about $45 million in funding, including $40.5 million from the federal government’s Emerging Renewable Power Program and $1 million from the B.C. government.

Hodgson said the company is negotiating with BC Hydro for an electricity purchase agreement. At present, the Fort Nelson area draws its power from natural gas-generated electricity in Alberta. 

Canada lags behind other geothermal-rich countries

For all its budding potential, the geothermal sector in B.C. is under-developed. In fact, Canada is rare among nations on the so-called Ring of Fire, the seismically active zone encircling the Pacific Ocean, in that it doesn’t generate any geothermal electricity at all.

A more typical geothermal plant draws heat from brine in an underground aquifer. [Graphic Sustainaville, Borealis Geothermal]

The biggest obstacle to geothermal catching on is the large upfront costs, said Richard Truman, vice president of external relations for Geoscience BC, a non-profit research society that includes geothermal energy within its ambit.

“We have so much clean, cheap hydropower that geothermal has just never really had a look in,” said Truman, who expects that Tu Deh-Kah will become the first operating geothermal plant in B.C.

Teeing up the Tu Deh-Kah geothermal plant

Developing such a plant, though, involves several steps. The first is determining if there’s a resource in the first place, said Deh Tai’s Hodgson.

Clarke Lake Geothermal, as Tu Deh-Kah was originally called, began by acquiring a nominally depleted natural gas well in 2020. The next year, the company deepened the well to 2,450 metres, far below the gas producing zone and into a 400 million-year-old Devonian Period coral reef now infused with 125 degree Celsius briny water.

“You can check your temperature, your geochemistry, then stick it back in the injection well and put it back in the formation where it came from because all we’re trying to do with a geothermal project is harvest the heat,” Hodgson said.

30-day pump test in 2022 showed the brine was more than hot enough for the planned organic rankine cycle power plant. Unlike a fossil-fuel fired power plant, which heats water beyond the boiling point to power a turbine, the geothermal power system uses hot water to heat another fluid with a much lower vapour point to power the turbine. 

Hodgson expects Tu Deh-Kah will use a form of butane, such as isobutane. “The liquids you’ve got in a Bic lighter, basically,” he explained.

Geothermal risky and expensive, says critic

One downside to geothermal from a climate perspective is brine can contain traces of natural gas. Hodgson said engineering work is underway to figure out how to extract that gas to keep the power plant as green as possible.

Geothermal has its skeptics. Among them is German physicist Sabine Hossensfelder, a science popularizer renowned for her witty YouTube videos.

Hossenfelder concluded that geothermal is under-explored and underfunded but that it has a lot of potential with more research and improved technology.

“It also seems to me, however, that these drilling operations are and will remain risky and, for that reason, also expensive,” Hossenfelder said. “Like many other things we’ve been talking about, it isn’t going to be a panacea for climate change, but it may make a contribution.”

“While the costs for wind and solar have been dropping, costs for geothermal and hydropower have been rising. The best places have been taken long ago and now the returns are diminishing,” says German physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, who hosts a popular YouTube channel and newsletter billed as “science without the gobbledygook.”

Geothermal advocates argue that geothermal’s carbon footprint is much lighter than for wind, solar, or hydro, which also take up much more land and also require carbon-heavy materials like steel and concrete to manufacture.

But Hoffensfelder cited evidence that geothermal isn’t quite as carbon-free as its proponents make out. For example, geothermal wells do emit greenhouse gases – on average not as much as natural gas electricity plants but much more than wind or solar. 

“There are some geothermal plants in Turkey and Italy that actually emit more carbon dioxide than natural gas power plants,” Hossenfelder said.

The International Energy Association isn’t particularly gung ho on geothermal either. In its recently released World Energy Outlook 2023, the IEA projects that geothermal will only make up one per cent of the world’s energy mix in 2050. 

That compares with 32 per cent for solar panels, 32 per cent for wind, 12 per cent for hydro, eight per cent for nuclear, and 21 per cent for unabated fossil fuels.

The U.S. is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world. It’s also leading research into deep geothermal power, such as the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Utah FORGE project.

As it stands, Canada’s electrical generation is already very green.

According to a report on deep geothermal power by the Cascade Institute, a Canadian research centre at Royal Roads University near Victoria that addresses converging complex global crises, the country’s electricity generation is directly responsible for only about nine percent of Canada’s emissions.

That’s because hydro-electricity dominates. However, the institute predicts global demand for electricity will soar. The province’s CleanBC plan alone imagines a dramatically electrified society far exceeding BC Hydro’s current capacity. The institute envisions the future baseload power relying on deep geothermal because 90 per cent of the global geothermal opportunity exists deep below the surface.

“A major program to develop deep EGS in Canada could contribute to national solidarity around climate action, by supporting soon-to-be displaced workers and industries in provinces highly dependent on the oil and gas sectors, without directly competing with those sectors,” the Cascade report notes.

Tu Deh-Kah project creates local jobs

Case in point is the Tu Deh-Kah project up in B.C.’s northeast where residents know too well the fluctuations of the oil and gas sector.

Tu Deh-Kah’s Warren said construction on the geothermal project has already created about 400 temporary jobs. It’s “super-exciting because we’re 100 per cent Indigenous-owned and operated.” That includes her team of four among the more than 35 Indigenous people hired for the project. 

“We do anticipate about 12 to 15 full-time roles for the long-term operations. And of course, hiring local as much as possible, especially Indigenous,” said Warren, who is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq Nation but also part of the Fort Nelson community and whose children are Fort Nelson First Nation members.

“We’d like to ensure that their members can be closer to home and find this is exciting work at home,” she said. 

Other BC geothermal projects

Other B.C. projects have had to pivot from generating electricity for household consumption to other outcomes. Calgary-based Borealis Geothermal had planned a 15 MW plant called Sustainaville near Valemount, B.C. but is now working on a district heating venture. Borealis is also behind Kitselas Geothermal near Terrace. It has also pivoted from a 15 MW electrical plant to district heating.

Meager Creek Development Corp., meanwhile, now plans to use the power it generates to produce green hydrogen.

Depending on the temperature and circumstances of the source, geothermal energy can provide power and direct heat for a range of applications. [Graphic Geothermal Canada]

And a recent research project through the South Kootenay Lake Community Services Society is exploring the potential for lower-temperature geothermal energy in the area that could produce direct heat for greenhouses, a fish hatchery or a spa.

“There’s a long list of potential applications,” project lead Gordon MacMahon said.

“We’re wanting to do the geoscience research to de-risk it and identify and confirm that the resource is there,” he said. “Once we do that, then we’ll figure out what’s most appropriate and most accepted by the community.”

Volcanic potential

Geothermal is in the initial phase “where they found all the easy stuff – the big steaming volcanoes in Iceland, and the geysers in California,” said Steve Grasby, a Calgary-based research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada. “And now it’s moving into this second phase, where people are thinking how can we find the hidden geothermal resources.”

Geothermal sources are generally found in hot sedimentary basins, deep dry rocks and beneath volcanic ranges. [Map Geological Survey of Canada]

Grasby has been assessing the geothermal potential of the Garibaldi volcanic belt that extends from Squamish to just north of Lillooet and includes the Mount Meager Volcanic Complex.

While B.C.’s last explosive eruption in the region was 2,400 years ago, the Garabaldi belt has great geothermal potential, with 260 C water temperatures found within a kilometre of the surface.

In the late 70s and early 80s, in response to the energy crisis, investment in geothermal research in the Garibaldi belt – around $100 million in today’s dollars – resulted in a small, 250-kilowatt generating station.

“So this was the first geothermal electricity produced in Canada. But it wasn’t connected to anything,” said Grasby, who is vice president of Geothermal Canada. “They showed it was viable, but the production rates of the well – the economics – just weren’t there.”

One solution is to employ hydraulic fracturing or fracking – the taboo F word for environmentalists because of its association with oil and gas and its risk of triggering earthquakes. But another option is to search for fractures that form naturally in the granite.

Like a CAT scan

Researchers are using passive geophysical methods – such as magnetotelluric, gravity, and passive-seismic surveys – to scan the subsurface for permeable aquifers.

“It’s kind of like taking a CAT scan of a body,” Grasby said.

Identifying those sweet spots before drilling is more crucial for geothermal than it is for the oil and gas industry where Grasby spent most of his decades-long career.

“They might drill five, six wells that are dry – there’s no oil – but then the seventh one is a big gusher,” Grasby said. “And that pays for the cost of all the dry ones … But for geothermal, that success rate has to be much better just because the value of the thermal energy is not as great as something like oil because of the energy density and other factors.”

Proponents of deep EGS are also working with experts in oil and gas exploration to suss out the engineering challenges.

Geothermal moon shot

The Canadian Energy Regulator posted a list in May 2023 of Canadian geothermal power projects. They include Tu Deh-Kah, Kitsalas, Meager Creek, Alberta No. 1, Swan Hills, Eavor Technologies near Rocky Mountain House, Latitude 53 near Hinton, and DEEP Saskatchewan.

Not on that list, though, is the most ambitious of all – a proposal by the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University near Victoria for Canada to become a world leader in developing the holy grail of geothermal – deep enhanced geothermal systems, or deep EGS for short.

An enhanced geothermal system (EGS) can engineer a deep geothermal reservoir by injecting fluid into an area with dry hot rock. [Graphic US Department of Energy, Cascade Institute]

Where more conventional geothermal systems extract heat from volcanic hot zones within a few kilometres of the earth’s surface, deep EGS would involve drilling down about 10 kilometres. At such depths, anywhere on the planet, the rocks are hot enough to flash water into steam. 

The trouble is the technologies and engineering don’t yet exist to extract the heat from those depths in a cost-effective way. That’s why the Cascade Institute is proposing the 21st century equivalent of the Manhattan Project to slash those costs and usher in an era of abundant clean energy.

“No one knew how to get to the moon, and yet we did it,” said Rebecca Pearce, a post-doctoral researcher and research lead for the institute’s ultradeep geothermal project.

Pearce estimated it will probably take 10 years before deep EGS is proven. “Financially legislatively, technically, it’s a very emerging field,” she said.

In contrast with the dream of deep EGS, Tu Deh-Kah is using tried and true methods developed and proven in the fossil fuel industry. 

Regardless of process, a lot more work needs to be done for geothermal to reach its potential. Whether it can be done quickly enough and at scale to curb global emissions and forestall a climate catastrophe is the challenge.

Then again, as Deh Tai’s Hodgson noted: “The resource will be there for a billion years, two billion years; it’s going to be there as long as the planet’s hot and our sun hasn’t gone supernova.”