Alison Thompson Headshot
Alison Thompson
President and CEO - Borealis GeoPower

Geothermal Energy’s Potential in Alberta and Canada

Takeaways

  1. Alberta has access to key renewable geothermal energy resources, but they have yet to be fully harnessed and many people are still not aware of them.
  2. The Alberta government as well as the private sector are ready and willing to pursue the innovations that will lead the province to cleaner energy solutions.
  3. In Alberta, there is a good amount of well-managed funding available for innovation in the geothermal energy sector.

Action

Bureaucrats, public servants and employees working with energy companies have to stop trying to maintain the status quo as they are holding the companies back from making a successful transition towards clean energy, especially since these companies have already committed to the transition.


Tell us about Borealis GeoPower and what the company is focused on. 

We find the heat beneath your feet. We are passionate about what we do and we like how our model’s impact goes beyond just drilling. Borealis GeoPower seeks to de-risk geothermal reservoirs but in markets that can actually afford the fuel switching. When you are first in the industry, you have to find a permitting pathway as well as use innovation. 

My background is in oil and gas, where we also used a lot of mining techniques. It is really exciting and intellectually stimulating to apply yourself to a different industry. We have projects in a small community called Valemount in British Columbia (BC). They have an air quality crisis and they need a bold move to overcome it. Geothermal energy is going to be one of their largest solutions. 

“Clients all across Canada are becoming more aware of and interested in the solutions that geothermal energy can provide.”

We are also working with the Kitselas First Nation on their traditional territory near Terrace. The really interesting thing about Terrace is it has a lot of industrial customers and industrial heat is one of the only things still not yet cracked by renewable energy. There is a lot of enthusiasm for what could happen there. Clients all across Canada are becoming more aware of and interested in the solutions that geothermal energy can provide.


What is geothermal energy and what potential does it represent for Alberta, Canada and the world?

You would be surprised at how straightforward it is. Geothermal energy is energy that comes from the Earth’s centre. As it emits its heat outwards, it rises towards the surface. In some cases, it can go all the way to the surface and become a hot spring. There are many people who visit hot springs and enjoy bathing in them, so we are at least familiar with that concept. If the heat does not rise all the way to the surface, it can get trapped in reservoirs, much like the way oil and gas can get trapped. When that heat is trapped in a reservoir, you can drill into it. You can then bring it to the surface, use it, and then bring water back down to the reservoir. Geothermal heat is always present, so if we return water back to the reservoir, it will heat up again and be reusable. That is what makes geothermal energy renewable.


What are Alberta’s strengths in renewable energy?

My husband has a phrase he likes: “the embarrassment of riches.” Alberta has amazing backup plans in the form of renewable energy that many people are not aware of. This includes world-class solar, wind and storage capabilities for alternative fuels. There is even the possibility for large dams in the north and of course, geothermal energy. 

“Renewable energy is so abundant in Alberta and Canada—we have more energy than we need.”

I encourage people to do this thought experiment: yes, we have hydrocarbons. I am not going to tell you to not use them. In the thought experiment, I want you to choose to not use them. Like in a board game, you are going to choose to not use that resource. Instead, look around at what else you have: solar, wind, geothermal and hydro. These resources are local, diversified and do not emit. This is an embarrassment of riches. Renewable energy is so abundant in Alberta and Canada—we have more energy than we need. Using these resources, you can start to create your economy and grow your gross domestic product (GDP) without growing emissions. Now, you can relax the restrictions on using hydrocarbons so that you can use hydrocarbons but in a non-emitting way. Perhaps you are making hydrogen or producing plastics, which are wonderful building blocks of our economy and society. The point is you now have the luxury to use them differently. 

Coincidentally, geologically and geographically, Canada has all the ingredients for renewable energy and that is why this transition does not have to be painful. It could be euphoric.

How is Alberta driving innovation in the energy sector?

Alberta really is well-positioned. Large emitters pay a fee for their carbon emissions and so that pile of money goes into the government. I want to bring up the famous Upton Sinclair quote which points out that it is difficult to get someone to do something differently when their salary depends upon them not doing anything differently or not understanding it. 

What Alberta has done is that this pile of money does not go into the energy ministry. This money goes into the Ministry of Economic Development, Trade and Tourism. Alberta Innovates sits in this ministry, and so what happens is there is no Upton Sinclair tension of somebody maintaining the status quo because we have this other group.

I love the word “development” because for me, development means building something new. You are supposed to be doing something different. Alberta has intentionally separated where the innovation funding comes from and how it is used and administered. The people making those choices are different people so you do not have to be in that paradigm of what Upton Sinclair described.

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Who and what would you pitch to make Canada a global leader in geothermal energy? 

I might have a slightly different answer than many people would expect because I am not going to name a politician or the people. I am going to target bureaucrats and public servants. I urge public servants to embrace serving the public in the ways that they ask of you today and tomorrow. Politicians may be on board with the energy transition, but public servants who just maintain the status quo are holding us back. A lot of people do not get up in the morning to hold the country back but they think they are protecting companies. There are even some energy workers who take to social media late at night or to the streets. They think they are helping their companies but their companies and their leadership have long been okay with the change and with using different technological innovations and carbon pricing.

Alison Thompson Headshot
Alison Thompson
President and CEO - Borealis GeoPower

Bio: Alison Thompson is the President and CEO of Borealis GeoPower. She has a strong background in geothermal energy expertise and currently serves as the Chair and Managing Director of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association. From 2015 to 2021, she was an Energy Futures Lab Fellow. She was also an Expert Reviewer for Deep (Geothermal) Direct Use for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Organization Profile: Borealis GeoPower is a privately held Canadian corporation focused on project consulting for the development of high-temperature geothermal energy projects in the Canadian market. They are developing two sites for geothermal energy development in British Columbia and have led or consulted for projects in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Yukon and the Northwest Territories.