The New Power: Four interesting energy projects worth pondering
These projects explore new, renewable or otherwise remarkable sources of energy
by Marina Michaelides
Coal still provides the fuel for more than half of Alberta’s electricity generation, despite both environmental and health concerns stemming from its use. Natural gas makes up most of the rest. But despite our reliance on traditional sources of energy, that doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives. Alberta’s communities and industries are working to produce renewable, reliable and environmentally responsible sources of power, whether for electrical generation or heating. Here’s a look at some of the projects.
Heat of the Earth
- 10 to 20 megawatts (enough to power 10,000-20,000 homes)
- Water temperatures of up to 200 C
Oil, gas and coal aren’t Canada’s only earth-bound sources of energy. In fact, Craig Dunn, the chief geologist at Borealis Geopower, says Alberta’s geothermal resources are enormous.”The thermal resource in the western Canadian basin dwarfs the oil and gas resource, believe it or not. [But] oil’s worth more per pound.” That explains why, though geothermal power has been developed since the early 1900s, Canada remains the only Pacific Rim country not to make use of it. A renewable resource, geothermal electricity draws power from the heat of underground hot springs or aquifers. The water is stripped of heat to produce electricity and then cycled back through the naturally existing formation to be reheated. An Alberta-based company, Borealis is working on a major project just across the border in the Rocky Mountain Basin in B.C., where the increasing cost of hydro electricity has made geothermal more competitive.
But Dunn says there is opportunity in Alberta, too. “We pull extremely hot water out of the ground in oil and gas operations all the time,” he says. “For instance, the community of Hinton has wells with bottom hole temperatures of 150 degrees Celsius.” Devon Canada explored the use of the technology to generate electricity from the waste heat of its end-of-life wells, but that project, which partnered with Borealis and Free Energy Power, stalled. Geothermal remains uneconomical in Alberta in part due to the low cost of natural gas.
The Power of Wood
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1,200 tonnes/year
- Burns 12,000 tonnes of biomass/year
- 1 megawatt (1,000 homes)
Like geothermal, biomass isn’t a new technology, but you could say it’s new to us – at least, on the scale that some people are proposing. In Sherwood Park, the Centre in the Park biomass demonstration project is one of the first of its kind in Canada, although it’s very similar to thousands of biomass energy systems installed across Europe. Completed in 2013, the biomass generator is part of a district heating system that provides heat to public buildings and some condos in the Centre in the Park, a planned sustainable community. It is powered by commercial wood waste from the nearby North Star Pallets, as well as some agricultural waste such as oat hulls. It’s estimated that the system could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,200 tonnes each year.
On the Bright Side
- 800 solar panels
- 52 homes
- 1.5 megawatts (1,500 homes)
The Drake Landing Solar Community, a 52-home development in Okotoks, has been billed as North America’s first solar subdivision. While the community’s electrical power comes from conventional sources, an innovative project provides the neighbourhood’s heating through the winter months. Solar thermal collectors have been installed on the garages of the community’s homes, and during the summer, these panels can generate around 1.5 megawatts of energy, which is used to heat a glycol solution that travels from the individual homes to the community’s “energy centre.” There, a heat exchange transfers the heat from the glycol solution to water in a short-term storage tank, which in turn is run through a series of deeply buried pipes (called a borehole thermal energy storage system) where it heats the surrounding earth. There, the heat is stored until winter, when the water is returned to the short-term storage tank and then circulated to the community’s homes.
Just a Little Nuclear
- 10 megawatts (10,000 homes)
- 1 to 5% of the output of a typical nuclear plant
- Refuelled every 30 years
While Alberta won’t be getting a large-scale nuclear plant anytime soon, a scaled down version of the technology could fuel the development of the oil sands. Toshiba may be better known for its electronics, but the conglomerate has also developed a small nuclear reactor called the Toshiba 4S, for “Super Safe, Small and Simple.” According to an October report from The Daily Yomiuri, Toshiba is in the process of developing a version of the reactor for use in Alberta’s oil sands at the request of an unnamed producer, with hopes of bringing it online by 2020. The reactor would be used to heat steam used in SAGD operations, eliminating the need to refuel remote natural gas-powered boilers and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Nuclear energy is currently more expensive than natural gas, but would become more cost-effective should the price of natural gas increase.
For more on renewable energy, read “The Trouble with Renewables”