Strawberries grown in an aeroponics facility. SUPPLIED/Photo

Alberta winters aren’t typically the ideal berry growing season, but a project near Hinton is aiming to change that and potentially create a more sustainable strawberry.

In a world that is transitioning to net-zero the Latitude 53 project has been dubbed a “renewable energy and food security solution,” the project takes vertical gardening in Alberta to the next level by merging it with geothermal technology.

However, questions remain about whether projects such as these will be a viable solution for a carbon-neutral world.

Vic Reddy CEO of Freshbay, an indoor farming company, will be launching the “19-acre, or 800,000 square foot, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) facility.

“We anticipate, we have it projected, that for year one we’re going to produce about anywhere from eight million to nine million pounds of strawberries,” he said.

The project has many partners and funding streams including Novus Earth – an Alberta-based renewable energy company, Freshbay, Mitacs National Research Organization, and the federal government of Canada — who contributed $5 million investment in Novus Earth to execute a front-end engineering design (FEED) study,” and the Town of Hinton.

Altogether, $6.6 million has been invested in the project.

The Town of Hinton has been studying the economic viability of geothermal energy in the area since 2015 but in 2018 found that geothermal energy would not be feasible as originally scoped, according to the Town website.

In 2022, the Town was approached by Novus Earth, the Town’s website stated, and the renewable energy company proposed “vertical farming facility heated from geothermal energy from a new drilled well.”

In a statement, Marcel Michaels, mayor of Hinton said they are delighted Novus Earth “has taken interest in developing this natural resource in our community.”

Michaels said the town “has supported the exploration of geothermal energy as a renewable heat source, recognizing the opportunity this resource presents to attract new economic investment and diversification, and to reduce the community’s carbon footprint.”

What is geothermal energy?

Nicholas Harris a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences said geothermal is the use of exploiting the natural heat in the earth.

Harris said the earth has several different sources of heat, but the best-known geothermal resources are associated with volcanoes.

Volcanoes are “particularly hot,” and wells can be drilled that produce steam and that steam can be brought to the surface to drive turbines and generate electric power.

 “In Canada, those kinds of resources are pretty rare,” said Harris, adding that there are some semi-quiescent volcanoes north of Vancouver that engineers and geoscientists have thought about exploiting.

Most of the geothermal resources that people look to, in Canada, are associated with fault zones like the fault zone associated with Radium Hot Springs, west of Calgary.

“The faults create this plumbing system that allows water to penetrate fairly deeply heat up and then come back to the surface,” he said.

Another geothermal resource that is commonly available in Alberta and Saskatchewan is the hot water that is part of the western Canada sedimentary basin.

“The same sequence of rocks that companies have exploited for oil and gas for the last 100-plus years,” said Harris.

The water is not as hot as the water associated with volcanoes, Harris continued, but it can be hot enough to generate electrical power and hot enough for industrial uses like greenhouses.

“If you’re exploring for geothermal energy in the province, you’re basically looking for where you can find hot water at the shallowest possible depths because it’s just a lot cheaper,” he said.

The relationship between temperature and depth is called geothermal gradient. A high geothermal gradient means you don’t have to drill as deep to get to hot water.

Harris said there are some known hot spots and known cold spots in the province.

The hot spots are in the northwestern part of Alberta with a project near Grande Prairie and there are also hot spots west and northwest of Edmonton with a project in the Swan Hills area.

Central Alberta, however, is not so hot.

Calgary is not “favourable,” said Harris, for finding water with enough heat to generate electricity.

The geothermal greenhouse project near Hinton exploits heat in sedimentary rock formations.

“It’s basically a limestone reef and it’s got a lot of porosity, big holes, pretty big holes — at least for geologists they’re pretty big holes. Water is present and can be pumped out,” he said.

Harris said there are two ways heat can be exploited in a reservoir like the Hinton reservoir. The water, that is naturally occurring in the reservoir, can be pumped to the surface, the heat can be extracted, and then the cooler wastewater can be pumped back down “into probably the same formation that you took it out of originally.”

The other way, Harris continued, is to drill a well through the formation and “form a loop coming back to the surface.”

“You pump fresh water from the surface down into the formation. Let that water, that fresh water, heat up and then it flows back to the surface. That’s called a closed loop system,” he said.

There are advantages to the closed loop system including not having the dissolved minerals natural formation water has that could clog pipes. However, a closed loop system may not be as efficient at bringing heat to the surface, said Harris.

According to Novus Earth’s website page on the Latitude 53 project. The geothermal power plant is a 4 km deep closed-loop system that can harness 130 degrees Celsius of heat from the earth. The power plant will generate 3.1 megawatts of electricity to “support a cleaner grid, reliable baseload power.”

The website states that 70-degree Celsius heat will be transported by pipeline to be used as a district heating and cooling system transported to Hinton and direct-use heat for heating and cooling the hydroponic and aquaculture facility.

But why a greenhouse — and what about those strawberries?

Reddy was in the cannabis industry for a decade before he decided to switch to food after he saw many in the cannabis industry failing. 

He was introduced to Jeff Messner the CEO of Novus Earth and the two Alberta boys “hit it off.”

“We thought to ourselves, why don’t we marry these two technologies, you know, geothermal energy with agriculture.

“We’re looking at a lot of these indoor facilities that are having trouble keeping the doors open, keeping the lights on, etc. We kind of concluded that geothermal might truly be the key differentiator here,” Reddy said.

Initially, Reddy was going to grow greens in the Hinton facility but decided to switch to a strawberry called Affinoria Fragaria.

“Strawberries are now listed as a superfood. You can’t grow basil and feed your family, but I can grow strawberries… It was a hard pivot because my whole plan was based around leafy greens and high value herb production,” he said.

There is high demand in the western Canadian berry market and Reddy said they can get a high price per pound. Once they hit the shelves — sometime in spring 2024 — the strawberries will be more expensive, but Reddy said they will be worth it.

“Every berry in that box is going to be a deep dark red, just cold vine ripened…It’s picked in the morning and sent on the trucks and it’s available to consumers throughout Alberta and B.C. in the morning right at 9 a.m. when the stores open up,” he said.

There are other benefits to growing food in an aeroponics facility.

“The vertical farming bottom line is just maximizing the amount of production per square foot so I can earn the most amount of money per square foot,” he said.

Typically, strawberries require a large amount of pesticide and herbicide use but that won’t be the case for Reddy’s vertically grown berries.

“When we have humidity problems inside of the greenhouse, all we do is we open the flaps in minus 20. You know in the middle of January…there’s no bugs. There’s no pollen, there’s nothing it’s clean, crisp, rocky mountain air that’s flowing through our facility that’s just ripping out the humidity.

“The berries love the cool weather because it makes them sweeter,” he said.

Geothermal energy has not got a lot of traction in Canada and Harris said the scale of geothermal projects is small at the five-to-25-megawatt range compared to a typical gas or coal-fired power plant that can produce 500 megawatts.

“I think the big companies that would be getting really behind geothermal development they’re pretty clearly standing back and waiting and watching how these smaller developments go —whether they’re going to be successful or not, whether they can be scaled up or not,” said Harris.

There is an advantage in Alberta, said Harris, as the oil and gas industry has a wealth of knowledge on the sedimentary basin and the temperatures, water chemistry, and how fast water can be produced from those formations.

Harris said he can’t say if the Latitude 53 project will be a success.

“I’ll be following the success or the outcomes of that project with a great deal of interest because their experience will tell everybody a lot about this particular use of a geothermal resource.

“The devils in the details on a project like this…or the answer is in the details. And I just don’t know those details,” he said.

By Jessica Nelson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Apr 01, 2023

This item reprinted with permission from   St. Albert Gazette   St. Albert, Alberta

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