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Environmentalists Need To Compromise To Make B.C. A Geothermal Energy Powerhouse

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The Green Party of B.C. calls British Columbia a potential "green tech powerhouse." We all know about hydro energy, but few know about a much-neglected potential source of energy: geothermal energy.

As presented in this map, the province has a tremendous potential for geothermal energy. It isn't a fancy new technology either; rather, it is a mature technology that's used worldwide. Once constructed, a geothermal power plant is pretty close to carbon neutral and for an energy technology, it is remarkably clean.

So why aren't we a geothermal energy powerhouse? Well consider this picture of B.C. protected areas. Our most bountiful geothermal resources are situated right smack in the middle of some of our biggest and most beautiful parks. Moreover, all that potential is located deep underground and we don't have a secret map with an X marked "geothermal energy here." The only way to find this energy is to drill.

Exploratory drilling 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 at that location. I won't even go into the land tenure process in B.C. as we don't have enough space to open that can of worms.

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 environmentalists has built their brand by fighting fracking. Now consider what will happen when someone suggests fracking in a provincial park?

To make things worse, all these geothermal plants will have to be connected to the power grid through high-power transmission lines. 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.

In 2014, the British Columbia government proposed a method to address these two bottlenecks. The tool was an update to the Park Act. This update provided a legislative mechanism by which both the geotechnical studies and expansions to the power transmission grid would be facilitated.

Does anyone want to guess how the environmental movement viewed the bill? Here are some highlights:

Virtually every progressive media outlet and environmental group in B.C. came out against the idea. Certainly the move would marginally simplify the process of building pipelines in B.C., but anyone familiar with that process knows that inter-provincial pipelines are a federal jurisdiction, and the federal government doesn't need to consult with the province to run a pipeline through a provincial park.

A second complaint was the potential for oil and gas drilling. This environmentalist response appeared to be purely reflexive and another example of the science-blind nature of the opposition in B.C. Oil and gas in B.C. is almost exclusively found in the Peace District and most of the parkland in question is in the southern mountains.

The government in their press release even suggested that geotechnical studies (absolutely necessary for geothermal) were one of the major reasons for the revision. But for the activists, if the B.C. Liberal government wanted it, then it must be bad and it must be opposed.

Don't worry, because the activists really support geothermal; just don't suggest a rational and practical method to develop the energy source in B.C.

As I mentioned earlier, geothermal is actually one of the most environmentally benign of the renewable energy alternatives out there, but it has some serious drawbacks.

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.

If we are going to make geothermal energy work in B.C., 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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