Construction imminent on Swan Hills geothermal plant

Pearl Lorentzen
Lakeside Leader

“FutEra Power, a subsidiary of Razor Energy, will build Canada’s first co-produced geothermal power plant in Swan Hills,” says Lisa Mueller, president of FutEra in an Alberta government news release. “We intend to be a leader in energy transition including the utilization of legacy assets to harvest natural resources, such as geothermal heat from existing oil and gas production.”

Construction of the Swan Hills Co-produced Geothermal Natural Gas Project is scheduled to start late fall 2020, Mueller told the Leader in a phone interview. The project is on a legacy oil production field about 15 minutes from the Town of Swan Hills. There are 84 producing wells and pipelines over an area of six miles by six miles. The wells were drilled in the 1960s. At the time, it was a prolific reservoir. Now, it produces 97 per cent hot water and three per cent light oil.

The Canada Energy Regulator defines light crude oil as “crude oil with low viscosity which flows freely at room temperature.”

The project has a “holistic view” of production, says Mueller. It focuses on harvesting waste heat, which is a byproduct of the oil extraction. The Swan Hills field wells are about 2,400 to 2,500 deep. In this location and at that depth, the rocks are very hot, which means that the water which comes out of the wells is also very hot.

Jonathan Banks is the Director of Geothermal Energy Research at the University of Alberta. U of A collaborated on Razor Energy’s co-production project.

In Alberta, the geothermal energy is quite deep, Banks says. How deep and how hot vary by region.

“Power’s very complex,” says Mueller, which is part of the engineering challenge of the project. The simple version is the water will flow through a heat exchange which harvests the heat. This heat energy turns turbines to generate electricity.

The electricity produced will be sold to the grid, says Mueller. The capacity of the project will be 21 megawatts. The project is a form of “cooperative thermal.” Of these 15 will be produced from combustion of natural gas and up to six by capturing the waste heat of the existing oil extraction.

A megawatt is a large unit of electrical measure which equals one million watts.

The Canada Energy Regulator says, as of 2018, Alberta had the capacity to generate 16,332 megawatts (MW) of power, making it the third largest energy producer in Canada. This was generated from natural gas (49 per cent), coal (43), wind (six), hydro (three), biomass/geothermal (one), and both petroleum and solar (less than 0.1).

In oilfield, Banks says, waste water is injected into unused wells that will not connect with the current well. In geothermal, the water put back into the ground needs to get back to the extraction well, but it has to had enough time to heat back up to the original temperature. Building this hydro geological loop is an engineering challenge.

The Swan Hills project uses a pre-existing hydro geological loop, says Mueller.

Geothermal is safe enough use in town, says Banks. There’s a plant in a southern Germany city, which just looks like another building.

The risk with geothermal is very low once the drilling is done, says Banks. However, “even the risk during drilling isn’t terribly high in any meaningful way.” Drilling, fracking, and improperly injecting waste water into wells. can cause human-made earthquakes. Alberta already has some of these because of oilfield drilling. Although rare, a few geothermal sites have shut down because of earthquakes – one in Switzerland and one in South Korea. This danger can be mitigated by “proper reservoir management.”

The Swan Hills project costs $37 million, says Mueller. Late February 2017, Razor purchased the Swan Hills field. Since then, it’s been working on engineering, permits, research, project financing, etc.

The biggest challenge to geothermal is the high upfront cost, says Banks. Running the plant costs very little, but drilling wells and building the syste is expensive. However, at the moment, drilling rates are low. Banks assumes this is because of of the downturn in oilfield activity. In Alberta, he figures that it would take a few weeks to a month to drill a full size geothermal loop. A.

Banks says, in 2015 – 17, U of A did a survey of the geothermal potential within 20 to 30 kilometres of populated areas within five municipalities in western Alberta: City of Grande Prairie, Grande Prairie County, M.D. of Greenview, the Town of Hinton, and Clearwater County.

Banks says the area surveyed had 250 sites with potential for use in timber kilns, to fill pools, and for space heating. There were also 50 to 60 hot enough to produce energy. At the time, the Alberta NDP government had a goal of producing six Gigawatts of energy from renewable sources. The geothermic resources within these five municipalities could produce about 10 per cent of this goal.

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