Alberta’s first geothermal project heats up

Logging Operation in Winter (Photo Courtesy by Voltage Wireline Inc.)

Interview with Alberta No. 1 Geothermal Energy Project CEO Dr. Catherine Hickson

by Caroline Fyvie

Alberta is known for its natural resources such as oil and gas, but could soon be known for a different resource, geothermal energy. Edmonton-based Terrapin Geothermics, a company specializing in generating clean, baseload electricity and heat from industrial waste heat and geothermal resources, is busy testing Alberta’s geothermal capability by developing and managing the province’s first large-scale conventional geothermal energy facility, Alberta No. 1.

Geothermal Power Plant in Pico Alto, Portugal (Photo Courtesy by Exergy International)

The International Renewable Energy Agency describes geothermal as “heat derived within the sub-surface of the earth. Water and/or steam carry the geothermal energy in the form of heat, to the Earth’s surface. Depending on its characteristics, geothermal energy can be used for heating and cooling purposes and/or be harnessed to generate clean electricity.”

Geothermal energy is used in countries including Iceland, the United States, Indonesia, and New Zealand to name a few, where natural underground resources are prevalent. As it becomes more popular due to its low environmental footprint, experts in Canada are finding ways to make geothermal part of the energy mix.

Last fall, the Alberta Government announced a regulatory framework to allow for geothermal development in the province, and Terrapin is one of the industry leaders participating in consultation during the development of its energy legislation and regulations. It’s a natural fit for Alberta, as drilling for geothermal wells leverages the strengths of Alberta’s oil and gas workers.

Rig 41 Scheduled for Alberta No. 1 (Photo by Akita Drilling Ltd.)

Last summer, Terrapin secured $25.42 million in federal funding to build Alberta No. 1, which is located within the Municipal District of Greenview and owned by No. 1 Geothermal Limited Partnership. Other similar developments have received federal funding including Indigenous-led Clarke Lake Geothermal Development Project in British Columbia, and DEEP ENERGY Corp’s project in Saskatchewan.

For this project, Terrapin chose CAODC member AKITA Drilling as the drilling contractor for the exploration well. The main difference between drilling for geothermal compared to oil and gas is the size of the wellbore, resulting in a higher cost well; anywhere from three to five times more expensive for a well designed for fluid production for electrical generation. Wells drilled for direct use applications can be smaller and shallower, thus are cheaper.

Developments such as Alberta No. 1 could be replicated in other regions of the province. Dr. Hickson, a global geothermal expert, says Alberta has the most extensive heat resource in Canada which is valuable. “Alberta doesn’t have the highest temperature resources, but it has massive quantities of extremely useful, low temperature resources.”

Is Geothermal Sustainable?

Geothermal energy is emissions free (carbon zero), and Terrapin is exploring the possibility of adding carbon sequestration to the injection process of Alberta No. 1 to make it carbon negative. Geothermal runs 24/7, 365 days a year. It produces base load (“firm”) electricity of thermal energy. It has a very small surface area or footprint relative to wind and solar, and many beneficial attributes.

You may be wondering if geothermal is renewable over time, and Dr. Hickson says maintaining high temperatures underground on a decadal scale are possible with good management. Because geothermal facilities have to inject the produced fluids back into the subsurface reservoir at a cooler temperature than what is being recovered, they have to manage the reservoir to ensure the water has time to heat up again before it is produced.

“Reservoir management is a critical part of a sustainable geothermal facility. Understanding how the reservoir works, how quickly the fluids move through it, the chemistry that might be changing, as well as the temperature are all closely monitored. Production and injection are adjusted as the field is produced in response to detected changes,” Dr. Hickson explains.

What’s Next for Alberta No. 1

Being at the forefront of the industry, Terrapin’s team will have to prove commercial viability of the project, and longevity, to maximize green revenue from the facility and sell it on its baseload (“firm”) power capacity and small footprint. The Alberta marketplace is competitive because it already offers low-cost natural gas for heat and affordable electricity.

After the project is completed, the facility can put enough electricity on the grid to power approximately 2,500 homes. It can also provide enough heat for roughly 30 acres of greenhouses or other direct-use applications, which could be as far as 10 to 15 kilometers from the facility.

Rig 41 Scheduled for Alberta No. 1 (Photo by Akita Drilling Ltd.)

Alberta No. 1 is estimated to provide 300 direct and indirect jobs. “Where the jobs are really created in a geothermal project is not the power production, but in fact, those direct use applications. So, if we’re talking about agriculture, say greenhouses, etc., those kinds of industries hire a significant number of people.”

Dr. Hickson says Alberta No. 1 has already partnered with different companies to use their geothermal energy in direct heat applications once the project is completed. Partners include a composting facility to be located in a light industrial park, and there are hopes as the development moves forward that more companies in the agriculture, forestry, and aquiculture sector will partner with Terrapin for their direct heat needs. Terrapin also hopes that its green power will help industries doing hydrogen or methanol manufacturing as well as helping them sequester carbon.

Complementary Resources

As someone who was raised in Edmonton, Alberta, Dr. Hickson appreciates the uniqueness of hydrocarbons and believes geothermal energy should be used for thermal uses, whereas hydrocarbons should be used for applications for which they are uniquely suited for. Products such as plastics and fertilizers.

“The products that you can get from hydrocarbons are so unique and can’t be replaced, so why don’t we save those hydrocarbons for their unique purposes and use geothermal for heat?”

As the energy landscape grows, geothermal could be another valuable resource for western Canada, and utilize the same skillsets needed by the professionals in our world-class energy services industry.