In a few weeks a generator in North Dakota will fire up, powered by nothing more than waste water from an oil well.
The pilot project is designed to show that it's possible to generate geothermal electricity from the boiling water that comes out of the wells. The concept is something Alison Thompson, managing director of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, has long been calling for in Canada's oilpatch.
"We've been advocating for many years to do what we'll call the hot sedimentary-style geothermal, which is really no more than taking what the oil and gas companies are already producing and running it through a little turbine right at their site."
Canada produces huge amounts of geothermal power, but so far none of it is being used to generate electricity, Thompson said.
"We just actually bring up all that potential to the surface and then do nothing with it. It's actually treated as a waste or a cost to the company." She equates the waste to the gas flaring that was common across Alberta until stricter regulations came in 2000. She says either higher carbon pricing or more regulation would encourage companies to try the technology, but there isn't enough incentive now.
The pilot project in North Dakota, which is being developed with energy company Continental Resources Inc., cost about US$3.5 million and includes several years of research and development. Gosnold said if the pilot project is successful, new geothermal units could be constructed at a cost of US$250,000 each.
The two generators on site have a combined 250 kilowatt hour capacity, which Gosnold estimates could mean about US$150,000 in annual energy cost savings in total. At 250 kWh, the generators would produce enough power to meet the annual needs of about 300 homes.