On renewables and the need for compromise, Part I: Geothermal

So as I’ve mentioned previously, I see a next step in the eventual move to decarbonization being the development and implementation of renewables as alternatives. Anyone with an interest in the topic of renewables in BC should spend several hours perusing the EnergyBC website. It is a great resource for professionals and lay readers alike and represents the investment of hundreds of hours of research by some very bright minds out of UVic. It is a credit to Dr. Whiticar and UVic and should be on every science teacher’s list of resources for their students. Since EnergyBC says so much more than I could hope to on the basics and potentials of renewables in BC, I will leave the heavy lifting to them and will stick to detailing issues that I find particularly important or that relate to my particular background.

So let’s start with what I think is the most viable renewable energy source for BC: geothermal energy. Geothermal is a relatively mature technology that has been used all over the world. Once constructed it is pretty close to carbon neutral and for an energy technology is remarkably clean. You would think that an essentially clean, renewable, carbon-neutral energy source would be the belle of the environmentalist’s ball. In that you would be mistaken. You see we live in a province where getting anything built is becoming increasingly challenging. We don’t just have NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) we have BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). We don’t just need a successful environmental impact assessment; regulatory and first nations approvals; and financial agreements, we also need to obtain a “social licence” which no one seems to know how to both get and keep. For those of you not involved in the resources field a “social licence” is not actually a formal licence it is rather a term used to describe the buy-in from local communities and stakeholders that will allow a project to actually proceed. As the Trans-Mountain/Burnaby Mountain protests demonstrated, without a buy-in from local communities and stakeholders even the simplest task (in this case the drilling of two boreholes for geotechnical testing) can become an incredibly challenging and cost-prohibitive activity.

So what does this have to do with geothermal energy? The energy that the Green Party of BC calls a “green tech powerhouse”? Well take a look at this map of the geothermal potential in BC: Now consider this picture of BC protected areas. As you can see our most bountiful geothermal resources are situated right smack in the middle of some of our biggest and most beautiful parks. A further difficulty is that while the map shows big red splotches of rich geothermal potential, all that potential is located deep underground. Unfortunately Mother Nature has not prepared any big “geothermal power here” signs so the only way to find this power is to drill. Exploratory drilling is not a field for the faint of heart or the light of wallet. It is an expensive and time-consuming process. It involves establishing base camps, ferrying in supplies and then lots of hard, expensive, loud and often dirty work. You might spend months and hundreds of thousands of dollars setting up a drill program only to discover that the land isn’t right or some underground feature makes exploiting the resource impossible in that area. I won’t even go into the land tenure process in BC as we don’t have enough space to open that can of worms.

As for the drilling, I haven’t even told you the worst part. You see while the initial drilling can be done using good old-fashioned coring technologies, if you want to actually make the geothermal resource available you will need to frack. Yes, I used the f-word. While those of us comfortable with the world of drilling can live with the concept of fracking; a huge community of environmentalist have built their brand by fighting fracking. Now consider what will happen when someone suggests fracking in a National park?

As for the operation of a geothermal plant, well these facilities use tons of water. No I am not being metaphorical, in this case I literally mean tonnes of water. Cooling plants, steam plants, geothermal fluids all this water has to come from/go somewhere and the geothermal water, having been trapped in the hot subsurface, is usually laced with metals and sulfur and is unsuitable for disposal on land. Happily, especially in closed-loop systems, almost all the water can be re-directed back into the subsurface but we are still talking about complicated chemistry here as the metals-laced, high-sulfur water will leave deposits in the piping which will need treatment. Any output from that treatment process will then need to go somewhere. Even the best closed-loop system will still have some emissions, which in BC are going to end up in our parks. Even the best closed-loop systems also need an external water supply, which in our parks means from nearby lakes, rivers or streams.

To make things worse, since we still don’t have the technology to safely transmit power through the air, all these geothermal plants will have to be connected to the power grid through high-power transmission lines. As any biologist will tell you, transmission lines are of particular concern in protected areas. Like any other linear development they increase the likelihood of, and number of, human visitors. They also split ecological communities and form access routes for predators and invasive species.

Cost-wise both the initial installations of the geothermal facilities and the construction of the transmission lines are very expensive and they need almost all their costs paid up front. Before you can generate a penny of revenue or produce a watt of power you need to spend millions on drilling and up to $1 million/km for the transmission lines.

By now you might have noticed that the title of this post includes the word “compromise” and I spent much of my introduction talking about “social licence”; you might ask why? Well as I mentioned earlier, geothermal is actually one of the most environmentally benign of the renewable energy alternatives out there, but even it has some serious drawbacks. In order for geothermal to make a major dent in our energy mix in BC it is going to take a LOT of money and a LOT of goodwill and compromises. These are the types of compromises our friends in the environmental movement have been completely unwilling to make in the past. They want the fruits of the fossil fuel industry but don’t want the mess of the fossil fuel industry. They talk the talk on geothermal but have not, to this point, done anything to make potential investors feel comfortable about investing here. If we are going to make geothermal energy work in BC we are going to need to convince a lot of people with very deep pockets to put up huge sums in upfront money to build these facilities. Frankly, given the noise and bluster of the environmental discussion, I cannot see this happening. No amount of consultation seems adequate to build up the social capital necessary to allow CEOs to trust their financial capital on these types of developments. Until the same folks who insist we come up with alternative energy sources actually help pave the way for these developments, they are not going to happen. Given the mess of the last few months on the traditional energy files, no CEO in his/her right mind would invest the time and effort to get an unorthodox energy file up and started.

So I suppose the question I would like to pose to my friends in the environmental movement is this: what are you going to actually do, besides paying lip service, to actually help get geothermal the push it needs to become a viable part of the energy mix in British Columbia? You have made British Columbia an unfriendly place to invest in resource plays but in order to get off the fossil fuel treadmill we need alternatives and that means making compromises….are you up for it?

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5 Responses to On renewables and the need for compromise, Part I: Geothermal

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