Digital Data Enables A Renewable Energy: Geothermal / “Earth Heat”

I have written about digital data as an unnatural resource and its importance to Canada’s Innovation Agenda.  In this article, I want to draw attention to how digital data can enable a burgeoning, renewable energy industry in Canada: geothermal.

The Canadian Federal Government recently acknowledged in its 2017 budget that “Geothermal energy is one renewable energy source with the potential to reliably meet a portion of Canada’s heating and electricity generation needs….”  Coupled with incentives now offered by the government to encourage investment, the Candian geothermal industry is hopeful it can successfully develop the resource on behalf of Canadians.

According to the industry association, CanGEA, “Geothermal energy is a clean source of reliable electricity and large scale direct use of the hot water derived from the earth that can help solve some of Canada’s greatest challenges, namely providing energy security, economic growth and reducing our CO2 emissions.”

“In its simplest terms, geothermal means earth-heat. It is related to the thermal energy of Earth’s interior. On a large scale, the intensity of this thermal energy increases with depth, that is, the temperature of the Earth increases as we travel closer to its centre.

This means that in order to tap into that “earth heat” one has to drill into the earth.  But isn’t that what the oil and gas industry has been doing for decades, albeit for hydrocarbon extraction?  In the province of Alberta alone, there are about 430,000 physical surface locations where wells have been drilled for oil and gas.  Not all of them function anymore and in some cases, the equipment is gone and the land reclaimed.  But the landscape is very much dotted with thousands of structures like these, some working away, some sitting inactive.

Can we tell if these wells are suitable for geothermal energy? By looking at these pictures alone, unfortunately, there is no way to know. That’s because there are many factors that influence decision making. These include but are not limited to, the location of the well; depth of the well; the temperature at the bottom of the well; the physical characteristics and conditions of the well; the status of the well license; the owner of the well license; the well’s age; its proximity to electrical infrastructure and communities; the land leaseholder; existing well liabilities;  regulations; the economics to build and operate, and so on.

Complicating matters, there is no one repository of all that data, so multiple sources have to be integrated in a meaningful way and analyzed. Fortunately, we are at a point in time where capabilities are coalescing to enable such decision-making.  Much data is available from government agencies; geological data is in abundance; commercial oil and gas data is more prevalent; data integration and analytical tools are more sophisticated.  These capabilities, when effectively combined, help reduce large data sets through filters, so that candidate wells can be identified.  The following is a concept illustration of the approach for Alberta, but the method would be applicable to other jurisdictions.

Many wells have potential, regardless of their stage of life (e.g. whether they are actively producing oil or gas, they are inactive, or decommissioned etc).  But there are cautionary flags raised by some who say there are numerous challenges that will impede progress, such as the condition of the well and its associated liabilities for decommissioning. This perspective was captured in a recent CBC article on the subject.   But even if a particular well is not suitable for geothermal, the data stemming from the well and its area (surface and subsurface) might inform prospective developers and investors on where to drill new wells.  In other words, digital data that’s accumulated in and around a well has value on its own for identifying geothermal potential.

Innovation has always stood at a crossroads; this is no different for exploiting geothermal in Canada.  What’s needed are guide books that set the direction and identify what to look for along the way.  CanGEA has been building those resources for over a decade and it will continue to do so on behalf of the industry.  And increasingly, we will see digital capabilities emerge as an enabler to finding and exploiting “earth heat” as a renewable energy source.

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