Alberta town embraces geothermal energy project with integrated vertical farm

The town of Hinton, Alta., traditionally reliant on resource extraction and forestry, may soon become the site of a unique clean energy project that combines geothermal energy and food production.

“It’s a new technology. It’s the future,” Marcel Michaels, mayor of the town of 10,000 people, 290 kilometres west of Edmonton, told CBC News.

The project is called Latitude 53. Last week, Calgary-based Novus Earth obtained a $5-million grant from Natural Resources Canada for a front-end engineering design (FEED) study.

Novus Earth and Mitacs National Research Organization are also contributing to the project, bringing the total investment to date to $6.6 million, Natural Resources Canada said in a news release.

The type of geothermal energy generation that Novus Earth intends to develop in Hinton relies on the so-called geothermal gradient and water.

Water runs in a closed loop in pipes that are buried deep under the surface, where Earth’s natural heat warms it up to about 130 C.

The hot water is piped through a heat exchanger, changing the pressure of fluid in another closed system, and that high-pressure fluid drives the turbine, generating electricity.

The water is then cooled to about 70 C and used for heating the company’s facility. Potentially, it could also be used for local district heating in Hinton.

Novus Earth president Jeff Messner said Hinton was chosen for the project because of a geothermal anomaly near the town — an area where the underground temperature increases by 36 degrees with every 1,000 metres in depth.

Vertical farm in works

In addition to the geothermal power plant, the company also plans to construct a vertical farm — a building in which different types of produce can be grown in levels.

The hydroponic operation would be powered by geothermal electricity. Novus Earth says it is still exploring the types of food that can be grown. Possibilities include Pacific white shrimp, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries.

Latitude 53 is still in its initial stages. Novus Earth plans to drill its first exploratory well this fall. Major drilling work would go ahead in the second quarter of 2023 while the geothermal power plant and vertical farm are being constructed.

“In three years, we should be up and running and harvesting lots of vegetables and shrimp,” said Messner. 

Michaels, Hinton’s mayor, said he and town residents are happy that the town is likely to acquire the means of independent food production.

“Remote communities struggle sometimes with the quality of food,” he said.

Messner described Hinton as a “food desert.” He said the company intends to use vertical farming in Hinton to improve food security in the town, as well as in Edmonton and northern parts of Canada. 

The project will create about 200 construction jobs while the power plant and the farm are being built, and 120 full-time jobs when they are operating.

“Any time you can add about 120 jobs to your community, [it] really helps your community grow … that could mean 300 people depending on the size of families,” Michaels said.

A group of 17 people stand in front of a building.
Novus Earth staff and members of Hinton town council got together at an open house event in March. (Submitted by Jeff Messner)

Curtis Anderson, president of the Hinton Chamber of Commerce, said he welcomes the company’s willingness to work with local businesses.

“The people running the company are just super down to earth, really nice, good people,” Anderson said. “Everyone got that vibe from them in Hinton, and they even mentioned that they want to contract local companies and businesses in town to do the construction.”

Anderson said local businesses appreciate the opportunities for training and skill development the project may bring.

“I know they’re looking to kind of hire locally and incorporate some training and apprenticeship programs into the whole system, which ties into education. I know they want to involve the youth and provide some scholarship opportunities and things like that.”

For Anderson, the reputational benefit that Hinton might gain from hosting the geothermal energy generation and food production facility is of big importance.

“Hinton’s going to be known as the leader in clean energy, which I think is huge. That would put us on the map globally.”

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