New report finds Yukon a hotspot for geothermal energy

The Yukon could have enough geothermal energy potential to provide more than 18 times the total energy supplied by the territory's renewable electricity system, according to a new report.

The Yukon could have enough geothermal energy potential to provide more than 18 times the total energy supplied by the territory’s renewable electricity system, according to a new report.

The study, researched and written by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA), found that the Yukon has at least 1,700 megawatts of geothermal capacity, and likely much more.

“You just happen to have some of Canada’s best resource,” said CanGEA chair Alison Thompson. “Your territory is just a prime candidate to get this industry going.”

She said that’s because parts of the Yukon are within the Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of volcanic regions that form a horseshoe shape around the Pacific Ocean.

The report found that the Yukon has at least 100 megawatts of “low-hanging-fruit” geothermal resources – meaning pockets of heat that are less than two kilometres below ground. To put that in context, Yukon’s entire renewable electricity system has a capacity of 90 megawatts.

And these figures are likely an underestimate of the territory’s true geothermal potential, because most of the data come from oil and gas wells drilled in the Peel Plateau, the Mackenzie Delta and the Liard Basin. That means most of the information is from the northeastern half and the southeastern tip of the territory.

Still, the report did provide a summary of the geothermal potential in each of 17 Yukon communities.

Several communities are sitting on geothermal deposits that are hot enough to produce electricity, including Whitehorse, Carcross and Teslin. But Thompson pointed out that Yukon’s electricity grid is mostly powered by hydro, so there isn’t much need for more renewable electricity in many areas.

However, Watson Lake and Beaver Creek are both near geothermal hotspots, and both are off-grid communities currently powered by diesel. The report suggests that combined heat and power plants might be viable in those communities.

It also finds that Carmacks and Ross River could build plants to power mining projects in those areas.

Whitehorse does use some geothermal energy already. For instance, geothermal heat is used to prevent the city’s sewage system from freezing during the winter.

But Thompson suggested that Whitehorse could go further and use geothermal electricity to supply power during winter hydro shortfalls, instead of diesel or natural gas.

“A geothermal industry located in Whitehorse can easily function as a role model for other cities in the Canadian North,” according to the report.

But producing electricity from geothermal energy requires very high temperatures, which aren’t found everywhere.

Thompson said the real potential for geothermal energy in the Yukon is in heating, since almost all of the territory’s heat comes from fossil fuels. She said geothermal energy could help to heat buildings and grow food in many northern communities, since the temperatures don’t need to be as high.

“Almost anywhere, you can go and drill down and get a reasonable temperature.”

She said geothermal heating could allow greenhouses to grow food throughout the year, which could improve food security in the territory.

In Iceland, she said, strawberries and bananas grow in greenhouses all winter long, thanks to heat from the ground.

“People can be secure right where they choose to live in Canada.”

In fact, the Kluane First Nation has drilled a geothermal well intended to heat the local greenhouse and water treatment facility.

Still, the director of Yukon’s energy branch made it clear that geothermal energy isn’t a top priority for this government.

“I think that what the study shows is that there are opportunities, but there are no obvious slam-dunks,” said Shane Andre. “I think our intent here wasn’t so much to say yea or nay to anything. It was really to develop a resource we could share with the public.”

The main challenge with geothermal energy, he explained, is the up-front cost of drilling the wells and finding the right spot.

“You can spend a lot of money and a lot of resources trying to find that really good geothermal resource,” he said. “It’s very much like looking for gold.”

The Yukon government doesn’t have any plans for geothermal projects in the territory. But Andre said that First Nations and municipalities could develop their own projects, and the government might pitch in.

The Yukon government also released its independent power production policy last November, which could allow small producers to sell geothermal electricity back into the grid.

Thompson said the Yukon government could also help to build a geothermal industry by giving companies exclusive rights for geothermal exploration in certain areas, similar to mineral staking. Currently, she said, B.C. is the only jurisdiction in Canada that has a tenure policy in place for geothermal energy.

When it comes to geothermal, Thompson believes that Canada needs to catch up to other northern countries like Iceland.

“It’s not a new technology,” she said. “It’s just a new way of thinking for Canada.”

The study cost $168,000, and was funded by the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency, the Yukon government and CanGEA. The Yukon Energy Corporation and the Takhini Hot Pools also contributed to the project.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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