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ANALYSIS

 

       Ontario Needs A Thermal Energy Strategy

 

 

By Terri Chu

Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals can rightfully pat themselves on the back for eliminating coal from electricity made in Ontario.  

However, as Ontario's Environment Commissioner Gord Miller puts it, “I’m tired of congratulating them for the same thing over and over again.” 

Though much work is being put into greening the electricity grid, Ontario is neglecting much lower hanging fruit on the climate change front. 

While consumers and companies complain about the price of energy, in comparison to other countries, energy is so cheap in Canada that our modus operandi is to waste it.

Take the many lost opportunities for thermal energy — also called district energy — for example.

Very few places outside of North America would have an electricity generating station that vents waste heat straight into the atmosphere, while right next door sits a building with its own set of shiny new furnaces.

This is the case in many parts of Ontario.

If the Liberal government is serious about taking action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or adapting to the climate change damage that has already occurred, there are inexpensive yet effective things it can do quickly on thermal energy.  Allowing facilities to generate their own electricity and having somewhere to put the waste heat is not only energy efficient, it reduces the risks of catastrophic grid failure like we saw in the great blackout of 2003.

For starters, the Wynne government needs to begin giving municipalities the tools to take control of their own climate futures and encourage the changeover to thermal energy. 

Small legislative changes — to allow municipalities to make the needed building code changes to help them start laying the foundation for thermal energy — would cost the province relatively little and can make large impacts down the road. 

Thermal energy, in a nutshell, is a network of underground pipes carrying hot and cold water, from a central plant to users, for the purposes of heating and cooling. 

On its own, thermal energy is only slightly more efficient than self-generation, better known as “business as usual” (and often this is debated.) But with the use of waste heat and innovations such as Toronto’s Deep Lake Water Cooling, it’s a hands-down efficiency winner. 

So the question becomes, why are there so few systems?

Like most things in life, this boils down to cost. In the big congested city, it can cost millions for a single kilometer of piping that no one in their right mind would lay unless there is an ample supply of customers willing to buy from them.

But there's a chicken and egg dilemma.

Buildings can’t use thermal energy when the infrastructure for it doesn’t exist yet, and so the building owners don’t design for them. 

North Vancouver solved the chicken and egg problem by declaring a certain region to be a thermal energy zone.

In short, if you wanted to build there, the building had to be “thermal energy ready."

But Ontario municipalities face a particular dilemma when trying to emulate North Vancouver’s success.

It's that stumbling block known fondly as the Ontario Municipal Board.

Forcing developers to make changes above and beyond code is a difficult endeavour. They don't want to make their buildings "thermal energy ready," because that costs money.

And the developers generally win challenges taken to the OMB.

So in order to lend a thermal energy policy the heft it needs, the Ministry of Energy needs to have a formal mandate to deal with such a policy while the municipalities gain greater control over local building codes above and beyond provincial codes.

A good strategy would be to work on both simultaneously.

In tandem with passing the easy legislative small stuff to allow municipalities to make the building code changes that immediately start allowing for thermal energy projects, the province should also be developing the significant framework to plan for thermal energy, not just electricity, on a province-wide scale.

That way we don't fall behind our peers.

Such a duel-pronged strategy has worked well in Copenhagen, where they allowed municipalities to do their own thing.

Laws were passed 20 years ago to ensure new buildings were thermal energy ready and now it is all coming to fruition: more than 90% of energy for space heating comes from waste heat.

As it stands, Ontario is falling behind as the rest of the world wakes up to the fact that in order to be efficient and resilient, we should be recovering waste heat and generating electricity close to where it is consumed. 

If Premier Wynne is serious about Ontario addressing climate change, giving municipalities the tools they need while adding more thermal energy into Ontario's energy mix is a logical and financially viable way to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About terri chu

Terri is a specialist in urban sustainability with a Bachelor of Science and a Master in Engineering. She has worked on district energy projects across Canada. In her off hours, Terri founded a not for profit called “Why Should I Care?” to engage everyday citizens into the political process.
Posted date : February 23, 2015

View all of terri chu's columns
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