The world’s largest geothermal power plant in Iceland. Photo: WikiImages / Pixabay
Despite being one of the most well-positioned countries in the world to capitalize on geothermal energy, Canada seems stuck at the starting line. But behind the scenes, a few game-changing developments hint at a new horizon for this underestimated renewable energy.
New research released in April estimates the value of the global geothermal energy industry will grow to $9 billion by 2025, up from $4 billion in 2018.
While this growth is translating to geothermal heated greenhouses in the Netherlands, a zero-emissions power plant in Italy and geothermal chocolate bars in the Philippines, it hasn’t meant much for Canada — despite the country’s substantial documented potential.
Geothermal energy comes from natural heat in the earth’s crust. Steam from hot spots near volcanic ranges, such as those in B.C., can be used to spin turbines to generate electricity, while warm water from cooler areas can be used as direct energy to heat homes, melt snow or grow food in greenhouses, like the Icelanders do.
The form of renewable energy, which provides uninterrupted baseload energy as opposed to intermittent alternatives such as wind and solar that rely on the weather, seems an obvious choice for many provinces and territories looking to increase sources of electricity while also decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Thus far, Canada is the only country on the Ring of Fire, a tectonic zone where the earth’s heat is abundant, that doesn’t have a single commercial geothermal power plant in operation. MORE
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Natural Resources Minister John Yakabuski seen at the Conservative government’s swearing-in ceremony on June 29, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault
Late last month, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government confirmed that it plans to repeal the Far North Act, seeking to reduce “red tape” and increase “business certainty” in the Ring of Fire – a mineral deposit located near James Bay. While Premier Doug Ford is not the first to think he has found a key to unlocking the resource potential of Ontario’s north, this strategy is sure to backfire.
Ontario’s far north is inhabited almost exclusively by Indigenous peoples with ancestral homelands in the area covered by Treaty 9. It is a vast landscape of swampy boreal forest, a gigantic carbon sink that is also home to rare creatures such as the woodland caribou and the wolverine. Except for the De Beers diamond mine near Attawapiskat, there has been almost no industrial scale development in the whole region, which is why mining the hyped-up nickel and chromite deposits in the Ring of Fire region will require major new roads and other infrastructure.
When the Liberals first introduced the Far North Act in 2010, they did so over the objections of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN). The plan was to “protect” 50 per cent of the boreal wilderness, while “partnering” with First Nations in decision-making and revenue-sharing so as to facilitate mining. But while celebrated as an ecological victory, the scheme was actually designed to manage the increasing volume and credibility of claims to Indigenous governance authority in the region. Ontario, in the years prior to the act’s passage, had been forced to pay off mining companies to settle litigation alleging that Ontario was failing to facilitate access to companies’ mineral assets in the face of Indigenous resistance.
With the Far North Act, then, Ontario was trying to maintain the facade that it alone has the jurisdiction to make land-use decisions in Treaty 9 territory. Under the scheme that Mr. Ford now wants to scrap, remote First Nations are given funding to create community-based land-use plans that map out in detail the historical and contemporary uses of various parts of their territories. Communities can identify areas of significant value such as burial sites, fishing areas or traplines, and may designate areas as open for – or closed to – mineral exploration. But, in the end, the Minister decides whether to approve the plan; final authority remains with the province to make a decision in the “best interests of all Ontarians.” MORE