Land, expertise and infrastructure: these are the three ingredients Alberta possesses that are essential to developing a viable geothermal industry – and three pilot projects in the province are putting them all to work.

Geothermal energy is the natural heat that originates from deep within the earth, which is culled for heating and cooling or to generate clean electricity. It’s a renewable energy source that has been studied for decades around the world, but has remained on the fringes of energy transition discussions due to specific geological requirements, as well as the state of geothermal production methods and technology at any given time.

As technology advances, geothermal energy is getting a close look and Alberta is well suited to support this industry. The province has vast resources of hot water below the surface, opportunities for co-production with oil and gas companies, the ability to repurpose inactive oil and gas wells, and over 100 years of drilling expertise and related technological advancement.

“The beauty of geothermal as an alternative energy source is that we know how to install underground pipes and move fluids,” says Bert Roach, economic development officer with Woodlands County. “We know how to drill safely and effectively. All the necessary skill sets are in place. Now what we need to do is ensure that all investors understand that we mean business and projects of all sizes can get underway.”

Woodlands County is a rural municipality with an area of 7,668 sq km and more than 4,600 people that’s approximately 150 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. The county is working with the communities in its region to identify opportunities to use geothermal to power residences and businesses, such as food production facilities, as the region is just north of one of the Alberta geothermal pilot projects.

Eavor Technologies established its $10-million geothermal demonstration project near Rocky Mountain House in central Alberta. The Eavor-Lite demonstration project comprises two vertical wells drilled to a depth of 2,400 metres, which are connected underground by two multilateral legs. The wells are connected by a pipeline at surface, which Roach notes creates an innovative new system.

“It uses a closed loop system that collects heat from below the earth’s surface in its underground loop,” he explains.

Since the system went into operation in December 2019, the flowrate and temperature have remained steady and consistent.

While the Eavor Technologies project is designed to prove out the company’s technology, rather than produce commercially viable geothermal energy, the two other pilot projects are aiming for commercial power generation.

“Technological improvements that will inevitably result as geothermal is further developed will also have economic benefits, including for the service industry.”Troy Grainger, executive director of GROWTH Alberta

Razor Energy’s project near Swan Hills – a small town about 220 kilometres northwest of Edmonton – connected to Alberta’s power grid in early 2020 and uses geothermal energy to power oilfield operations. The small plant is an oil-geothermal co-production operation that retrofitted geothermal technology to an oil and gas battery — a collection of surface equipment where production from a well is separated, measured or stored.

The plant is designed to generate power from two sources that produce a combined 21 megawatts of power to reduce the site’s costs. Five to seven megawatts are derived from heat to power generation and from a combination of hot water heat and heat recovered from all sources at the battery site. An additional 15 megawatts are derived from natural gas-fired generation.

Perhaps the province’s largest project is the $58-million Alberta No. 1 geothermal power plant planned for an industrial park in the Municipal District of Greenview, a nearly 33,000 sq km region adjacent to the City of Grande Prairie in northwest Alberta. The plant will include five wells for injection and production to generate five megawatts of net electricity annually when complete in 2023.

While these three pilot projects attempt to demonstrate the viability of geothermal energy, a recent University of Alberta study has identified potential for several more projects. The university noted there is more than 6,100 megawatts of thermal power capacity and over 1,150 megawatts of technically recoverable electrical power capacity possible to develop commercial scale projects across several western districts.

GROWTH Alberta, an alliance of north central Alberta communities to promote economic development in a region north of Edmonton, is one of those districts looking to attract geothermal energy companies. “Any industry that reduces carbon emissions and attracts domestic and foreign investment is a big win for Alberta, and the technological improvements that will inevitably result as geothermal is further developed will also have economic benefits, including for the service industry,” says Troy Grainger, executive director of GROWTH Alberta. The Eavor-Lite demonstration project comprises two vertical wells, drilled to a depth of 2,400metres, that are connected underground and at surface to create an innovative closed loop geothermal system.

The Eavor-Lite demonstration project comprises two vertical wells,
drilled to a depth of 2,400metres, that are connected underground
and at surface to create an innovative closed loop geothermal system. Photo courtesy of Eavor Technologies Inc.

With the land, expertise and infrastructure already in place to attract that investment, the provincial government introduced a fourth ingredient in October 2020 to help spur further development. Bill 36, or the Geothermal Resource Development Act, was introduced to create a regulatory framework in this burgeoning energy sector. The bill outlines rules and processes to develop geothermal resources responsibly; establish the legislative authority for land use and liability management; protect land and mineral rights owners; and establish the government’s authority to receive revenues such as royalties and fees.

“Certainty is what potential players in Alberta’s geothermal sector were waiting for,” says Woodlands County’s Roach. “Bill 36 will create a framework and go a long way in attracting both Canadian and international investment. It will be easier for residents and local governments to support projects, because they will have a better understanding of what to expect.”