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Canadian Geothermal

by Worldchanging Canada local blogger, Karl Schroeder

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Is geothermal power a viable alternative for Canada? Well, that depends. We've been using it for a long time in what are called direct-use applications--essentially, heating buildings using water from hot aquifers. Some provincial governments will even provide incentives to help you set up a residential heat-pump. But putting geothermal power on the electricity grid? That's a different story.

If residential geothermal interests you, Natural Resources Canada has published a helpful buyers' guide about what to expect. They estimate that for a new home, installing a geothermal heating system might cost you $6000 above what a straight natural gas or electric system would cost; but the system will pay for itself in less than seven years, and your annual savings on heating costs will be in the neighbourhood of $450.

Geothermal is expanding at double-digit rates in Canada, so you have a number of options. The Earth Energy Society of Canada maintains a list of contractors, and you may be able to find one in your area. (Significantly, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and the northern territories don't appear to have any geo contractors at this time.)

All of this is encouraging. The amount of latent heat in the ground is huge and geothermal companies are sprouting up everywhere. We're already saving at least 600 million kWh per year, which offsets 200,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Best of all, if you're a homeowner, it's an option that's within reach for you.

The real dream, though, is to start replacing our dirty coal-driven electricity plants with geothermal. Is this something that could happen in Canada?

There are signs that it might, at least in a modest way and in some places. If my enthusiasm here sounds lukewarm, it's because power-generating geothermal projects have very different requirements than direct-use systems. You need high temperatures to run power generators, and you simply can't get such temperatures in most of Canada. Also, the distances are too great for long transmission lines to be feasible--imagine running a line from B.C. to Ontario. Most of our high-temperature aquifers are in the Rockies; so that is the region (and the only region, so far) where we can expect geothermal power generation to be practical.

(This regionalism is no impediment for Canadian companies wanting to develop the technologies. For instance, Toronto-based Polaris Geothermal, a publically-trade company, is developing a 66 megawatt geothermal power plant in Nicaragua.)

Things are happening in the Rockies. In 2003 Western Geothermal proposed developing Meager Mountain, 170 km from Vancouver, into Canada's first commercial electric geothermal plant. The Company is in the middle of a resource confirmation program, drilling production-sized test wells at the site. They have also begun an environmental assessment preparatory to applying for an Environmental Assessment Certificate under B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act.

The Meager Mountain plant would provide several key advantages over alternatives such as wind. According to the company, it would be cheaper than wind or wave power (though not cheaper than micro hydro). Importantly, power production would be constant, which provides a clear advantage over current wind technologies. Meager Mountain would produce up to 200 megawatts steadily for 30 years, after which point the company is promising to rehabilitate the site.

Two hundred megawatts of clean power is nothing to sneeze at, especially in a province like B.C. where 90% of the electricity already comes from hydro-electric sources. Meager Mountain and its successors might eventually give B.C. a 99% green power grid. All of which is great if you live in the western part of the country.

For the majority of Canadians, geothermal electricity-generation will likely never make practical sense. But think about it this way: if new housing projects across the country started incorporating residential geothermal units as a matter of course, we could save ourselves the equivalent cost of building dozens of new power plants over the next few decades while reducing our carbon footprint by using less natural gas for direct home heating. So geothermal really can replace coal-driven power plants all across the country even if direct electrical production only occurs in one region.

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Imagine if it was mandatory to deploy geothermal in every new residential housing development and building in Canada. The effects would be staggering. Either alone or a hybrid geothermal-solar solution nation-wide would mean that the country would need to rely less and less on centralized power. Distributed energy is more secure, would shave peak load, hedge homeowners and businesses businesses from rising oil and natural gas prices, and using technologies that don’t burn fossil fuels and release CO2 into the atomosphere are good for the environment.

In an effort to make this possible has been advocating that “every home and building become a generator? not only in new building construction but in building retrofits, as well.
There are over 600,0000 buildings in Toronto now using electric baseboard heating. This is insanely inefficient, expensive and polluting. If we retrofitted these buildings with geothermal it would remove the need for one of the nuclear plants, which is scheduled to be built in Ontario. Ron Dembo, refers to this as “The Best Kept EnergySecret:

To demonstrate the possibilities has been spearheading two grassroots pilot projects, where groups of homeowners have stepped up to the plate to retrofit their homes with geo to show that residential retrofits in urban centres are possible – nothing like this has ever been done before in North America. Zerofootprint is working with the City of Toronto to get permission to access the City’s back lanes for drilling and installing some of the vertical loops for some of the homes in the Little Italy Community Project.

Zerofootprint is also working with new home builders to make it cost neutral for them to deploy geothermal or hybrid geo-solutions in new home buildings rather than traditional HVAC systems that use natural gas. Visit or

Indeed, Karl is right when he states that residential geo units would save us from building dozens of polluting power plants in the future thereby reducing our carbon footprint. Zerofootprint’s mission is to help make this possible by developing private public partnerships, and developing the financial facilities to make this possible and democratize renewable energy for the masses.

Posted by: Deborah Kaplan on 4 Feb 07



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