Why is there so little apparent interest in an energy source which could be relatively inexpensive, inexhaustible, and safe? Geothermal energy seems likely to be an energy source in the future.
In an existential emergency, it is important to focus on what can be controlled. In the case of climate change, sustainability of the response strategy is vital. Financial cost is a factor, but the necessity of finding and developing a viable remedy is paramount.
The 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stresses the urgency of reducing our use of fossil fuels by 2030, and ultimately our dependence on them altogether; the time horizon is closing in.
The geothermal resource has a special place in the move to clean energy. It is the only sustained renewable source of energy capable of providing uninterrupted base-load electrical power in quantity. In fact, it has been estimated that the available geothermal energy resource exceeds the entire current energy use levels in Canada. And geothermal electricity generation is scalable.
The major hurdle to the development of this resource is the high cost of drilling to the depths at which temperatures of the rock are sufficient. And the level of investment required has been judged to be well beyond what private sector capital is willing to risk; we cannot afford to wait for a willing entrepreneur. If we are to address the climate change existential emergency within the time available, investment in geothermal electricity generation needs to begin now.
Recent research at MIT in the US has demonstrated the feasibility of new deep drilling technology that enables easier access to deep geothermal resources (10,000 m or more). The new technique being commercialized by Quaise Energy uses a substantially less expensive and less time consuming technique than conventional drilling and uses high frequency energy beams to melt and vapourize rock.
This is not the only new technique being commercialized. Extensive discussions based on research and development of geothermal energy are now taking place annually in the US-based series of PIVOT conferences which began in 2020.
If we are to address the climate change existential emergency within the time available, investment in geothermal electricity generation needs to begin now.
Deep geothermal energy is virtually untapped in Canada. Vast thermally attractive strata underlie parts of the western prairie provinces and British Columbia. In some cases, it is possible to use existing abandoned gas wells by enlarging and extending them to depths where temperatures are more favourable for geothermal energy exploitation. Temperatures and geology at depth are already known for these abandoned wells. But the major hurdle overall has been the cost of drilling to the depths required (3,000 – 10,000 metres or more) and, as is the case with fossil fuels, to confirm the best exact locations for these wells.
Development of energy resources to replace fossil fuels at the pace required will be a massive task. Both reduced energy use and the installation of replacement energy sources will require major societal changes and involve hundreds of billions of dollars. Extensive national and provincial investment in the development of our geothermal energy resource would be a bold step in this direction.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, our governments willingly spent hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with urgent societal health needs. Clearly, in the face of necessity, such expenditures can be accommodated. The existential threat of climate change demands action with heightened urgency. We have only one planet. Canada has demonstrated that an extreme emergency can be met with the expenditures required.
Fifty years ago, the vast hydrocarbon resources in the Alberta tar sands begged for development. Canada agreed and massive federal financial support was made available. Canada and Alberta have since derived great financial benefit from this fossil fuel exploitation. Similarly, the shale gas resource in northeastern BC has been given large provincial and federal subsidies to enable development. But those resources have now been recognized as being environmentally unsustainable, and it is now time to develop more environmentally friendly energy sources.
Electrical energy is central to future sustainability. Alternatives to fossil fuels are emerging, but the generation of electricity from our widespread geothermal storehouse is largely unsung; Canada is only now waking up to the opportunity.
Our survival on our planet needs us to replace fossil fuels and it depends on the use of new feasible energy sources. Inaction will threaten our very survival and lead to destruction of our planetary biosphere.
We ignore development of geothermal energy at our peril.
The use of solar and wind energy as alternatives to fossil fuels for the generation of electricity is increasing and costs are coming down, but each has the drawback of intermittency. Hydroelectric development is also considered clean, but methane emissions from decaying flooded vegetation are a problem in addition to the associated environmental and social disruption. On the other hand, geothermal energy does not have these disadvantages.
Pilot scale development by the Fort Nelson First Nation using abandoned gas wells is underway at the Clarke Lake site in northeastern BC. Development of geothermal energy at the other end of the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, in southeastern Saskatchewan, is also being pursued by the DEEP Earth Energy Production Corporation. Each endeavour is small scale and has several years’ experience; each receives federal government support. Geothermal energy is beginning to be taken seriously in western Canada.
BC and Alberta have already been mapped for temperature at depth as a result of drilling for the oil and gas industry. Geothermal energy development can springboard from this knowledge.
Prices for solar- and wind-derived electricity are coming down, and there are intrinsic advantages such as the capacity for local electricity generation, reducing the need for expensive transmission lines. Though these sources are becoming cheaper, they take up valuable real estate and, as stated earlier, they are intrinsically intermittent requiring energy storage technology to bridge the gaps.
Nuclear reactors are also being considered, but permitting, construction and the development of acceptable methods to deal with radioactive waste will take decades. Small scale modular reactors may be feasible, but the need for clean energy is much larger than they can accommodate.
Then there is the concept of capturing CO2 from fossil fuel use, and the atmosphere itself, and sequestering it underground. Critics argue that it is not worth squandering our money on this technology: while it works at the pilot plant level, the massive quantities of CO2 that need to be sequestered to counter climate change are orders of magnitude beyond the capabilities of the full scale plants that have yet to be built. And they still need energy to operate. Carbon capture and storage is thus attractive primarily to those who want to justify continued fossil fuel use.
On the other hand, making use of geothermal electricity has none of the problems associated with these other solutions to the energy crisis, and should be seriously considered.