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Bring on the Heat: 4 Reasons Why Thermal Energy is the Missing Link in our Energy Transition

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Contributor: Marc Colombina • March 29, 2022

5 minute read

When most people think about the energy transition, they tend to focus on how we are generating clean electricity. In colder climates, energy systems are in need of finding ways we can produce emission-free heat for our communities and industries. In Canada, for example, heating makes up over 60% of our commercial and institutional energy use. Our unique environment requires our energy transition to not only include electrical generation, but also have a fundamental shift in how we deliver thermal energy.  


Before diving into how clean heat can build resilient industries and communities, it is important to first define the sources of clean heat we reference. 

The Heat Beneath Our Feet: Geothermal Energy 

In the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, which spans the Northeastern corner of British Columbia to the Southeastern corner of Saskatchewan, there are warm brines trapped in sedimentary layers deep underground. By drilling two to four kilometres into the earth, we can reach these geothermal brines and pump them to the surface. Above ground, thermal energy can be extracted from the brines to generate electricity (if temperatures allow) or be used directly, sent to places that need it by way of district energy networks. Once the useful work is complete, the brine is reinjected into the earth to be heated again. An example of this kind of conventional geothermal energy development is Terrapin’s Alberta No. 1 project, which is estimated to produce 10 megawatts of electricity and 985 terajoules of heat. 

The Heat Within Our Facilities: Waste Heat

By default, industrial activities generate a vast amount of heat waste. Refineries, turbines, kilns, and manufacturing facilities all inherently produce thermal energy, which is mostly dissipated into our atmosphere. We can recover this waste heat and convert it to power by applying the same technologies as low-temperature geothermal energy generation or we can redistribute the thermal energy in heating networks. This creates an emission-free way of utilizing an otherwise wasted resource as an additional energy source. An example of this being conducted for direct heat use is the 1,230 kilometre-long district heating network in Gothenburg, Sweden. Heating over 17,000 buildings, most of the heat from this system is recovered thermal energy from industrial facilities, like waste incinerators and refineries. 

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Nearly 90% of Gothenburg's apartment buildings are connected to their district heating network.

The Benefits of Heat

At Terrapin, we believe the means to effectively transition our energy systems, industries, and communities to a clean energy future are available to us today. By leveraging existing heat sources, whether they are below ground or in our facilities, we see heat bringing four key benefits to Alberta and Canada as a whole.

1. Sustainable Energy

Since it harnesses the naturally recurring heat of the earth, geothermal is a renewable energy source. As the earth generates heat 24/7, 365 days a year, geothermal is unique as a renewable in also being a baseload or constant source of energy. Similarly, waste heat is an alternative energy source that harnesses the constant heat emitted from industrial activities. As operations rarely cease, save for emergencies or maintenance, and the heat to power process creates no new emissions, waste heat can also be classified as a source of emission-free energy. 


Sustainability is also found within the power generation process. The power plants or heat to power systems have one of the smallest surface areas per megawatt of any form of electricity production. This means that, compared to other energy sources, less land is needed to produce greater amounts of power. As well, specific heat to power technologies, like Exergy’s Organic Rankine Cycle, can use air instead of water for cooling purposes.  

2. Decentralised Energy

Decentralised energy is defined as heating, cooling, or electrical energy that is generated close to where it will be used, rather than at an industrial plant and sent through the national grid. Decentralised energy systems include onsite energy generation, microgrid and smart grid enabling technologies and energy efficiency measures. Typically, these systems use emission-free resources and have up to 50 megawatts capacity, providing the benefits of emissions reductions and energy security for the sites that consume the energy.  


For industrial facilities requiring significant amounts energy, being able to generate their own power onsite from their waste heat resources helps bolster their energy resilience -decreasing their dependence on grid power. This power can also be sold to other parties through long-term, stable power purchase agreements.  


Like we saw in the earlier Gothenburg district energy system example, low-temperature heat and residual heat remaining after power generation can be used to heat homes and facilities. Thermal energy cannot not travel far without dropping in temperature and would therefore be dispatched through small distribution level networks. This is economically advantageous for local populations and businesses because they can avoid the need for large, costly transmission infrastructure buildout, while increasing their energy security. 

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Remote communities located near a heat source can implement decentralised energy systems to increase their energy security.

3. Employment and Economic Growth

Developing heat to power projects requires various actors. Like we shared in our last article, participants required to deliver this innovation include capital providers, EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) firms, technology providers, electricity marketers, carbon marketers, and more. These projects provide short-term opportunities for jobs and sales during development phases, and long-term jobs for those in technology and power plant operations and maintenance.  


A clean heat energy project can also be the anchor for larger eco-industrial developments. Phase of the Alberta No. 1 project alone can generate enough thermal energy to heat 30 acres of greenhouses. Other potential recipients of this heat include timber kilns, pulp and paper mills, cement plants, crop drying facilities, and food processing facilities. By providing affordable, clean energy, these projects can support the environmental performance and economic growth of a diverse array of industries. 

4. Increased Product Value in Global Markets

For Canadian exporters, a net-zero carbon strategy that includes emission-free energy ultimately increases their global competitiveness. Organizations that utilize the heat or power from clean thermal energy projects can generate carbon offsets. This helps reduce their carbon intensity, allowing them to participate in markets with low carbon fuel standards. Exporting to some markets may enable businesses to charge premium prices for carbon neutral products. How they choose to power or heat their operations can also lead to a positive ESG story and achievement of several ESG reporting metrics. 

Bring on the Heat

At Terrapin, we see thermal resources as having dual value by being able to produce both clean electricity and clean heat. This is especially important for the Canadian energy transition, as our communities and industries require lots of heat. Rather than trying to combust more fuels or add extra steps by converting electricity to heat, let’s harness the existing heat in our world to power our way to a thriving net-zero world.

Talk to a Heat to Value Expert Today

This blog article was based on a webinar presentation created for Growing the North 2022, an annual conference where municipal leaders and entrepreneurs examine innovation and explore economic development opportunities in the Peace Region of Northwest Alberta and Northeast British Columbia.


Recording is available to Terrapin's monthly newsletter subscribers. Subscribe here and receive the webinar link and access code in your welcome email.

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