Situated on the Pacific Ocean, British Columbia is on the Ring of Fire, resulting in substantial geothermal energy potential. In the simplest terms, geothermal means ‘heat from the earth’. Volcanic activity in the Pacific basin means deep underground water aquifers are heated by magma rising from the earth’s core.
Some aquifers reach temperatures high enough to drive steam turbines to produce electricity. At lower temperatures, this energy can be directly used for other applications, such as heating or cooling buildings, drying crops, or warming greenhouses. Since geothermal uses the natural heat from the earth, it is a reliable, renewable energy source.
The Commission's Role
On March 31, 2017, the Commission became the regulator responsible for overseeing aspects of geothermal well operations in British Columbia. Under the Geothermal Resources Act (GRA), the Commission has authority to regulate geothermal from preliminary exploration and well authorizations, through to well abandonment (closure). The Geothermal Operations Regulation under the GRA outlines how the Commission manages these wells.
Before the Commission considers an application to drill a geothermal well, the applicant must first acquire geothermal subsurface tenure through a competitive bidding process from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. If applicable, applicants must also work with the appropriate provincial ministries for such considerations as land access and cutting licences. Pipelines used for geothermal purposes fall within the definition of 'pipeline' under the Oil and Gas Activities Act (OGAA), and are regulated by the Commission as such.
On May 29, 2018, the Commission issued the first well authorizations for a geothermal energy project under the GRA. These authorizations allowed the operator to begin drilling to collect geotechnical information about the earth’s temperature, including how much it increases with depth and the degree of heat flowing to the surface.
How it Works
Generally, for a geothermal resource to be viable, three characteristics must be present; high temperatures, water, and permeability in the reservoir. When water surrounds high temperature rock that can transmit fluids (permeability), it is a geothermal resource that may be accessed by a system of wells. When reservoir temperatures exceed 100 degrees Celsius, geothermal energy arrives at the surface as hot water and steam by way of the producing wells. When the temperature is very high (greater than 140 degrees Celsius), geothermal reservoirs produce mostly steam and very little water.
Once at surface, the heat in the geothermal water and steam can be converted for commercial use. After extracting the heat, the geothermal water is injected back into the reservoir to maintain the reservoir's pressure. The injected water is once again in contact with the high temperature rock and moves through the reservoir where it can be extracted via the producing wells.
Whereas the vast majority of oil and gas development occurs in the northeast of the province, the characteristics required for successful geothermal projects are of high quality in southern B.C. The well authorizations issued by the Commission to date are located in Valemount. Prior to March 31, 2018, geothermal wells were authorized under the Ministry of Energy and Mines. The Commission has since assumed authority over those wells.
There are no producing geothermal wells regulated by the Commission at this time. However, a demonstration unit was developed and tested in 1984 at Meager Creek but was not connected to the grid that delivers electricity from producers to consumers.
Acts and Regulations
In addition to the GRA, there are regulations in place that govern the development and use of geothermal resources in B.C.: