Canada is sitting on a huge renewable, carbon-free energy source that works 24/7. It’s cheaper than coal. So why aren’t we using it?
“It’s really a catch-22,” responds GSC research scientist Steve Grasby. “Until there is active need for the information, it doesn’t necessarily make sense for the government to invest in providing it. But if you don’t have it, you don’t get [outside] investment.”
Red tape at the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum resources has added to the frustration from industry. Despite sitting on the geothermal-rich Pacific Ring of Fire, the last B.C. land tenure auction occurred back in November 2004. Meanwhile, 14 different companies made approximately 175 tenure requests from late 2007 into 2008.
As a result, says Thompson, many Canadian-listed geothermal companies like Magma Energy, where she is Vice President of Corporate Relations, are spending “every single dollar in other countries, except for on the lights in our head office.” Consequently, Canadians with drilling expertise are missing out on hundreds of green jobs.
The B.C. Ministry is now targeting three dates for tenure disposition in 2010, says spokesperson Jake Jacobs. Four parcels of land are out for referral with industry, First Nations, and local governments. As all parties move forward, Thompson urges Canadians to learn from the experience of New Zealand’s Maori indigenous people, who are owners and operators of key geothermal generation properties.
Nicholas Heap, Climate and Energy Policy Analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation, says that such caution is required to maintain a social license to operate.
“Geothermal can be low-impact and sustainable, but it’s not necessarily going to be that,” he says. “If the public perceives this just to be more dirty, high-impact power, we’re not going to get the kind of support that we need to effect a large-scale transition to a renewable and sustainable energy system.”
Part of this perception may come from the fact that while almost all of the steam produced from geothermal plants is water vapour, other particulates including hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon dioxide may be present in extremely low amounts. But these can be controlled and utilized in beneficial ways. The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Iceland is fed by the output of the nearby geothermal plant Svartsengi, and its warm waters are reputed to be therapeutic. The plant also uses a heat exchanger to heat the municipal water system.
A 2009 report by Northwestern University researchers found that geothermal has the least land use per generated power. “If that land was previously agricultural, most of the use could continue unabated,” says Dan Schochet, Executive Vice President of Ram Power, which operates the Meager Creek Hot Springs exploration project in B.C. (currently on hold).
David Gowland, Policy Director for Can- GEA, stresses the need for a long-term view, citing the short-term approach that has caused some Californian sites to run down the resource too quickly. “Countries like Iceland and New Zealand recognize they will be relying on the resource for the longterm so they draw out heat at a sustainable rate,” he says. “They are attuned to successfully managing the resource.”
Despite these benefits, until Canada has a commercial-scale geothermal operation, public awareness and demand will likely remain low.
Tim Weis compares the geothermal industry to a fledgling wind industry. “It really tipped the balance for wind energy when we got a couple of commercial projects in the ground,” he says. “Then that set the stage for substantial, long-term policies."
Despite lagging behind our peers, Nicholas Heap of the David Suzuki Foundation thinks there’s still time for Canada to create “a planning and development system that makes low-impact renewables a core goal”.
“A lot can be done in a short time if there is the will to do it.”