Mother Nature’s Icelandic lava show has been an impressive reminder that we are surrounded in every direction by awesome amounts of energy. Photons shower down, water cascades, wind blows while waves pulse and tides flow. And the Earth beneath our feet stores heat from the sun’s rays above while generating its own from dark sources below.

Icelanders tap their volcanic endowments for heat and power. The country is one of a handful already providing 100 per cent clean power, while 90 per cent of its homes are heated with geothermal energy and electric vehicles are fast approaching half of all new sales. You can even rent one from a company called Lava Car Rental.

Volcanism has its downsides — just ask the Icelanders forced to evacuate recently to escape the lava flows. Thankfully, tamer versions of geothermal energy are available and they’re heating up the world of climate tech.

Confusingly, all of them are referred to as “geothermal” even though they are totally different approaches to energy, other than the use of underground pipes.

The heat under our neighbourhoods

You’ve probably heard of private developers or campuses tapping heat at relatively shallow depths where the ground holds the sun’s warmth all year round. No flirting with lava or drilling deep to hot rocks. Just bore some holes or tap into a water source, run some pipes, fill them with fluid, tack on a heat pump and you’ve got heat. Crucially for our climate-changing world, you’ve also got cooling.

They’re technically called “ground source” heat pumps, sometimes “geothermal heat pumps” or “geoexchange systems.” Occasionally even “earth-coupled” (delightful and vaguely titillating — that would have my vote but seems unlikely to win the broader naming competition).

They work. In fact, they’ve been around since the 1950s. No more burning gas in homes and heat pumps are beyond efficient — ground-source heat pumps give back four to five units of energy for every one you put in. "The closest thing to a silver bullet" in the race to clean energy, says the head of the International Energy Agency.

Geothermal networks are one of those brilliantly obvious ideas, once you hear about them. Even better to discover, the idea is already well-tested and deployed, writes Chris Hatch @zerocarbon

And … they’re very expensive to install on your own.

But very smart people are rolling them out under whole neighbourhoods in a version of district heating known as a geothermal network, where a few boreholes supply a community, distributing the system cost while providing heating and air conditioning to multiple buildings. In New England, studies show networked geothermal to be cheaper than gas or air-source heat pumps and scalable across the region.

In Massachusetts, the gas company even got on board. National Grid and Eversource are regional utilities installing the first geothermal networks. There’s a real logic for the utilities. After all, the system looks a lot like what the gas utilities have been doing all along — a network of buried pipes serving neighbourhoods — replicating the gas network but without the gas. Instead of fighting decarbonization, it’s a chance for the gas company to embrace clean energy, transform itself and avoid a death spiral.

To its credit, National Grid was already moving on trial projects before the State of Massachusetts mandated a move away from gas. New York and Colorado have also passed laws requiring gas utilities to build geothermal networks.

Geothermal networks are one of those brilliantly obvious ideas, once you hear about them. Even better to discover, the idea is already well-tested and deployed. I had never heard about Kensa before this week, but the company has been quietly manufacturing and deploying ground-source heat pumps across the U.K. for two decades.

By its reckoning, “Kensa has saved over one million tonnes of carbon through ground source heat pump installations.”

Image from Kensa

Don’t feel bad if you've never heard of Kensa. For a long time, neither had the author of the U.K.’s world-leading Climate Change Act. Bryony Worthington sat down with Kensa’s new CEO to get caught up on the company’s recent injection of £70 million (about $118 million) from investment company Legal & General Capital and energy supplier Octopus Energy.

You can hear all about the plan to install 50,000 ground-source heat pumps per year by 2030 in Worthington’s interview on YouTube or as a podcast.

Image from Kensa

Deep heat

Far deeper than the cosy warrens of networked geothermal, things get really hot. And a number of companies are repurposing oil and gas expertise in deep, horizontal drilling to tap those high temperatures.

This kind of “enhanced geothermal” is a much trickier proposition than ground-source heat pumps. It’s a wild card but could supply vast amounts of carbon-free energy 24/7. How vast? In the U.S., it could plausibly power 65 million homes to the Department of Energy. And those calculations are based on the industry’s performance up to 2022. The results are markedly better now, so it’s worth checking in on a couple of examples.

We’ve covered Alberta-based Eavor Technologies in past newsletters. Eavor drilled deeper than five kilometres under New Mexico last year, grinding through hard granite to temperatures around 250 C.

The company originally proved its technology for an underground closed-loop “radiator” near Rocky Mountain House, but it was Germany that took it to commercial scale with a project now under construction near Geretsried, south of Munich. That Eavor project is designed to produce both heat and electrical power.

You might recall that Alberta’s environment minister went to Bavaria for the ground-breaking ceremony with the German chancellor. Awkward, since Alberta had just put a freeze on renewable energy projects. Last year, Eavor successfully raised $239 million in equity capital to scale up, including $90 million from the feds’ Canada Growth Fund. In addition, the European Union came in with €91.6 million ($134 million). Even the United States Air Force signed a contract.

In November, another enhanced geothermal company, Fervo Energy, began supplying electricity to the Nevada grid from a project backed by Google.

Tim Latimer, Fervo’s CEO, says the project “proved commercial readiness over a decade ahead of most forecasts.” It prompted the MIT Technology Review to name enhanced geothermal a “breakthrough technology” for 2024.

Recently, Fervo revealed it can now drill deep, horizontal wells 70 per cent faster and 50 per cent cheaper than one year ago.

“We’ve now shown we can develop highly productive enhanced geothermal wells, slash development costs and deliver incredible performance drilling granite at more that 430 F,” said Latimer. “Hotter, deeper, faster, cheaper. The Geothermal Decade continues.”

The Roundup

Political climate

You could make a strong case for Steven Guilbeault being the best minister in charge of climate policy that Canada has ever had. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel boosters want him fired. But lately, he’s taking heat from pundits otherwise supportive of climate action.

“Steven Guilbeault needs to be fired,” was Evan Scrimshaw’s Valentine message. Andrew Coyne describes him as being “in bad odour.” Max Fawcett writes: “The job Guilbeault signed up for is called politics, not policy.”

The latest tumult comes after Guilbeault said the feds don’t intend to spend more money enlarging the road network and prefer to support public transit. He went on to say, “We must stop thinking that electric cars will solve all our problems.”

Pretty basic stuff for those focused on maintaining a hospitable planet. But, apparently, still wildly contentious as a matter of politics.

Atlantic and Amazon ‘tipping points’

The ocean currents that help keep Western Europe in a mild climate “may already be on course to a tipping point,” according to new research. The study on the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is being debated by scientists. Some say a collapse of the current is “unrealistic” over the next century, while ocean scientist Stefan Rahmstorf says the study provides, not only modelling, but also "observational data from the South Atlantic, which suggest the AMOC is on a tipping course."

Other researchers found that up to half the Amazon is facing mounting stressors that could push the rainforest to a tipping point over the next 30 years.

Barclays ends finance for new oil and gas

The biggest European financier of the fossil fuel sector announced it would no longer provide funding for new oil and gas projects or infrastructure related to them. The BBC reports “campaign groups welcomed the move, but insisted it did not go far enough.”

The banking giant will also restrict lending to companies that plan to expand fossil fuel production or coal-fired power. Barclays is also ending direct funding "for any oil and gas projects in the Amazon or in the Arctic Circle, or which were aimed at extracting, processing or transporting oil from oilsands.”

Saudi Arabia halts plans to boost oil production

Saudi Arabia decided not to go ahead with plans to boost its oil production capacity and its reasoning is getting a lot of attention.

“We postponed the investment simply because … we’re transitioning,” said Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman.

“And transitioning means that even our oil company, which used to be an oil company, became a hydrocarbon company. Now it’s becoming an energy company.”

Private members

NDP MPs are making waves with two private member’s bills. Charlie Angus wants regulations against fossil fuel advertising like those used to curb tobacco ads. “The regulations could help rein in 60-plus years of false advertising and paltering by the oil giants,” Angus argues in Canada’s National Observer.

His bill is backed by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment but publicly opposed by the provincial NDP in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Seth Klein writes that “Angus’s proposed law is already doing a great service — sparking a needed conversation about the role of fossil fuel companies in perpetuating the climate crisis.”

Another NDP MP, Laurel Collins, called for a coal export ban. Canadian exports of thermal coal are booming and Collins says the statistics are “shocking.” She has tabled a private member’s bill to force the government to follow through on a 2021 election promise to ban thermal coal exports.

She’s got the backing of Ecojustice, Canada’s largest environmental law charity. The organization’s Melanie Snow writes that “governments around the world must now wrestle with how they phase out fossil fuels. Some of these choices will be difficult, but the decision to ban thermal coal exports is not.”

First Nation challenges LNG project

Gitanyow Nation is prepared to challenge the proposed Ksi Lisims LNG project in northern B.C., even through the courts, reports Matteo Cimellaro. The nation wants a pause on what it calls a “one-sided and industry-driven” provincial environmental assessment.

The nation is concerned about climate and environmental impacts, particularly on salmon, as well as its energy needs. “They’re asking for this huge diversion of power just to support a fossil fuel project,” explained Tara Marsden, Wilp sustainability director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs. “It really begs the question of the net-zero claims.”

Climate activists occupy Chrystia Freeland’s office

Greenpeace Canada occupied Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s office on Thursday morning. Keith Stewart, the organization’s senior energy strategist, said the goal was to highlight insufficient climate action by Finance Canada. The group displayed a burned kettle and a charred metal case from a child’s protractor kit found after the devastating Lytton fire that razed the British Columbia village in 2021.

“No more rollbacks or delays on promised climate measures,” Stewart said, pointing to potential loopholes being slipped into the forthcoming oil and gas emissions cap, and carbon tax carveouts.

“And then secondly … include in the 2024 budget announcement that they're going to regulate the banks on climate finance.”

Photo from Greenpeace Canada

For years, climate advocates have urged Ottawa to regulate Canada’s financial sector and many organizations have endorsed Independent Sen. Rosa Galvez’s Climate Aligned Finance Act to help achieve a climate-safe financial system.

'Greenwashing' complaint against Lululemon says Lululemon has been using the slogan "Be Planet" but the company's own reports reveal a doubling of greenhouse gas emissions. The organization has filed a complaint with Canada's Competition Bureau asking for an investigation.

Earth-coupled communities

I’ll leave you with a plug for Bryony Worthington’s conversation with that U.K. company specializing in ground source heat pumps and networked geothermal. Worthington and Kensa CEO Tamsin Lishman discuss how the systems actually work and what it’s like operating in a field still dominated by dudes: Green Heat (And Cooling) Under Our Feet.

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