* Some 5,000 MW of potential power exists to be tapped
* Most Canadian resources are in the West
* Industry wants government aid to get projects started
By Nicole Mordant
VANCOUVER, British Columbia , Aug 9 (Reuters) - Canada has the potential to generate enough clean, low-cost electricity from geothermal sources to power 5 million homes, the country's geothermal association said on Monday.
As things stand though, the resource-rich country does not produce a single unit of geothermal energy, which comes from hot water and steam produced by heat deep below the earth's surface.
This is a result of a lack of government funding, a shortage of land made available for development, a dearth of knowledge and the existence of other cheap and more traditional power sources like hydro and natural gas, Alison Thompson, chairman of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association said.
"Geothermal is practically the lowest-cost electricity, not only of the renewables," Thompson told delegates at an industry conference in Vancouver, showing a slide where only coal-generated power was cheaper.
"But people don't even know it's an option, even in towns where there are hot springs," she later told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.
In geothermal power production, hot water and steam from underground are piped up and used to drive turbines in plants that generate electricity.
Well-known manifestations of geothermal energy are geysers and hot springs, which form when heated water rises and breaks through the earth's surface.
In Canada, as in the United States, most of the geothermal resources are found in the West. Thompson said Canada has at least 5,000 megawatts of geothermal resource in the western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories.
The industry wants the Canadian federal and provincial governments to invest in mapping studies and provide early-stage financial support, as the United States has.
Ironically Canada has an abundance of geothermal developers but most of the companies are active in the United States, the world's biggest producer of geothermal energy.
Some 27 percent of geothermal development in the United States is carried out by Canadian-based companies, said Alexander Richter, director of sustainable energy at Islandsbanki, an Icelandic bank active in geothermal financing.
Geothermal companies have set up shop in Canada largely because of the financial community's comfort with financing mining projects, which are similar to the earlier stages of geothermal development.
Canadian-listed geothermal developers include companies such as Magma Energy Corp MXY.TO, Ram Power Corp RPG.TO, Nevada Geothermal Power NGP.V and Sierra Geothermal Power Corp (SRA.V).
(Editing by Frank McGurty)