Innovative Low-Carbon Urban Infrastructure: A View from Vancouver

Marc_books-Oct08Marc Lee is a Senior Economist with the British Columbia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and researcher with E3 Network’s Future Economy Initiative. Marc joined the CCPA in 1998, and is one of Canada’s leading progressive commentators on economic and social policy issues. Since 2008, Marc has been the Co-Director of the Climate Justice Project (CJP), a research partnership with the University of British Columbia, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 

The narrative on climate change this fall is a familiar one: global greenhouse gas emissions hit another record high last year; extreme weather events are causing record damages; and yet we face an impasse in global negotiations for a new climate treaty, and a relentless push for ever more fossil fuel extraction – seemingly because there is no alternative. On the other hand, demands for action at events like the Peoples’ Climate March, and the growing calls for divestment from fossil fuels, there is a growing movement joining the climate scientists in their call for humanity to change course. But this movement needs more good news stories to counter-balance the gloom, and to start reimagining a sustainable and equitable future.

Around the world cities have asserted a leadership role in wrestling with climate action. Where I live, in Vancouver, British Columbia, my federal and provincial governments are deep in denial, enamoured by fossil fuel riches, but my city aspires to be the greenest of them all. Cities ostensibly have a more limited policy toolbox than senior governments, yet decisions on land use planning, buildings and urban infrastructure can have a powerful long-term impact on their carbon footprint.

My case study looks at Vancouver BC’s Neighbourhood Energy Utility, and its repurposing of district energy as a key ingredient in urban planning and greenhouse gas mitigation.  At its core, district energy is primarily the use of centralized boilers to provide heat and hot water to multiple buildings. It’s comparatively technocratic and boring, with appeal among engineers and energy economists. And it’s old, with examples of steam systems (powered by fossil fuels) in downtowns across North America going back more than a century.

False Creek Energy Centre
False Creek Energy Centre

So what’s the big deal? Done properly, “district energy 2.0” uses modern technology to hit a sweet spot of clean energy, local control, and stable prices at competitive rates. Vancouver’s NEU has many desirable features for consideration as a case study, in particular how its use of sewage heat recapture displaces fossil fuels, and its public utility model challenges us to expand our conception of municipal services. The NEU has been in operation since 2010, linked to the development of the Athletes’ Village for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Perhaps more importantly, it is at the centre of a long-held vision of a sustainable community in the Southeast False Creek area of Vancouver. With buildings representing about half of Vancouver’s carbon emissions, and almost all of this is for space and water heating, district energy is well positioned to do some of the heavy lifting of mitigation.

Sewer heat (mostly water heated up during the day by sitting in pipes and toilet bowls) is essentially a free energy resource, made feasible by building an energy centre that uses heat pumps to concentrate and extract energy from the sewers, and about 5 km of insulated pipes that deliver it to buildings connected to the network. The system is not entirely fossil fuel free, as natural gas boilers provide peaking and back-up capacity, but the sewer heat powers 70% of annual energy requirements. Higher upfront capital costs can also be a barrier, along with resistance from developers or communities.

In the case study, we will take apart the NEU to better understand its economics, environmental performance and governance features. We consider challenges and limitations, and to what extent this model is scalable and replicable. In short, the NEU is an excellent example of the integration of district energy into urban planning, a development that holds great promise at a time when the world needs real alternatives to business-as-usual.

For more information on E3 Network’s Future Economy Initiative, view our framework. Studies to be completed in December, 2015.