District energy still a big, but dwindling, opportunity for fast-growing Toronto
When Toronto City Council made the decision three years ago to let boutique hotelier Henry Kallan develop a hotel on the grounds of Exhibition Place, the idea was to make the Allstream Centre and Direct Energy Centre more attractive convention venues.
With Exhibition Place now representing the heart of the 2015 Pan American Games, having a hotel on site is even more crucial.
But the hotel represents more to the grounds than just convenient accommodations. For Exhibition Place, it offers an opportunity to expand its reach as an energy service provider.
Years ago, it installed what’s called a tri-generation system. Basically, the system is a natural gas-fired generator that supplies electricity to the Direct Energy Centre. What’s unique, however, is that waste heat recovered from the generator is used to warm the building and run a chiller that’s driven by hot water.
On top of that high-efficiency system, Exhibition Place gets some of its energy needs from wind, geothermal and solar power systems, and it has plenty of room to add more — as well as energy storage — as growth demands.
That’s where the hotel comes into play. Staff from the city’s energy efficiency office realized there was no need for the new building to install its own boilers and chillers. Instead, Exhibition Place could simply pipe surplus heat from the Direct Energy Centre to the hotel.
Kallan was sold. It meant no noisy equipment on the hotel roof, no hassles, and fewer hurdles for a project working under a tight schedule.
But the implications were much broader. It demonstrated that the city-owned grounds had huge potential of becoming the core of an expansive district energy system, one that could supply efficient heating and cooling services to all sorts of new buildings expected to be developed in the surrounding area over the coming years.
“All of that is fair game. We have big plans for that area,” says Fernando Carou, a senior engineer from the city’s energy-efficiency office who specializes in district-energy development. “It’s the approach we should have taken 50 years ago in this city, which is to integrate energy into the way the city grows and develops itself.”
Jose Etcheverry, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University, echoes that observation. “We have a situation here where municipalities expand without any thought whatsoever about energy.”
This contrasts with northern Europe, where district energy systems make a major contribution to national power and heat production. In Denmark, about 60 per cent of buildings are supplied by district energy. Narrow that to Copenhagen and it rises to 98 per cent.
There are some visible exceptions in Ontario. Toronto has Enwave, which supplies heating and cooling to 140 buildings in the downtown core. North of the city, Markham District Energy began supplying energy services to the surrounding community in 2000. It now has three combined heat and power plants serving the area’s buildings, with a fourth plant under construction.
“Markham has shown the great advantage that a little bit of energy planning can put on the table,” says Etcheverry, adding that Guelph and Hamilton are also showing leadership. “Enwave, in many ways, opened people’s minds about the potential.”
Carou says Toronto has missed a big opportunity by not embracing district energy earlier. He points, for example, to the Humber Bay Shores cluster of high-rise condominium buildings that sprung up along the lake west of the downtown core, or development around the intersection of Leslie St. and Shepherd Ave.
These areas could have been perfect for building district energy into planning. “But they have nothing,” he says.
Still, missed opportunity doesn’t mean zero opportunity. The city has about 200 new high-rise buildings planned for construction over the next several years, part of the megatrend of diversification and urbanization.
“There’s incredibly explosive growth happening,” says Carou. “We just have to act quickly.”
To help focus the city’s efforts, his office commissioned a report that prioritizes energy “action zones” or “nodes” where district energy (including renewables and targeted energy storage) would make most sense — low-hanging fruit ready for the taking.
He presented a map of 27 action zones while speaking at a seminar last week organized by York’s Sustainable Energy Initiative. Exhibition Place was on the map. So was York University, which is rich in surplus land that private developers are drooling over.
Carou says going the district energy route appears a “win-win” for York. The university can make money leasing the land, earn additional revenues selling energy services from their own bulked up systems, and improve their own energy security in the process. A covenant on land leases could make it a condition of development.
For a university traditionally strong in environmental science and engineering curriculum, the facility could also potentially be a valuable training ground for students.
“We don’t have definitive plans yet,” said Brad Cochrane, director of energy management at York, who also spoke at last week’s seminar.
The option is currently being studied, he said, while also acknowledging that time is of the essence. “We have to make a decision soon if we’re going to go that way or not, otherwise it’s going to be more difficult to do later.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.