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Here’s what we’re demonstrating or finding out about district energy (as defined under the Home tab):

Cost – Compared with the main alternative – which is massive reliance on air source heat pumps (ASHPs) – district energy systems can usually be deployed at a lower total cost. This is because the main alternative would likely require expensive, major electrical system upgrades, and expensive, deep retrofits to most buildings, and expensive storage of electricity.

Storage – Systems of energy provision benefit from storage to access energy when its costs are low, and to avoid providing little-used supply for periods of high demand. Cost of electrical energy storage have declined greatly but are likely to remain several times higher than costs of thermal energy storage (TES). TES usually involves storage of hot water, but the term also covers storage of ice, heated sand, and other materials. Moreover, it’s feasible to use TES to store large amounts of energy for months, allowing use of summer heat in winter.

Risk – Most Canadian buildings are now heated using fossil fuels. Any approach to changing this can incur risk. The risks involved in installing the thermal networks required for district energy seem to be of much lower magnitude than those for the ASHP-based alternative.

Timeliness – Lengthy processes are required whatever is done, but the district energy approach, where feasible, would appear to have a better chance of meeting the federal government’s net-zero target for 2050. This timeliness would be a major contributor to the above-noted reduced risk. It would arise because of district energy’s much lower need for sophisticated imported materials and the greater availability of relevant skills.

Finance – District energy systems require a new type of utility that covers most deployment costs in return for affordable monthly charges. Such utilities become financially viable and attractive long-term investments. The ASHP-based alternative imposes potentially unbearable costs on electrical utilities and on building owners or operators.

These potential advantages of lower costs (for electrical utilities and for building owners and operators), inexpensive energy storage, low risk, good timeliness, and sound financing arrangements suggest that where feasible district energy systems should be the preferred means of space heating and cooling in Canada

The potential benefit of district energy systems to the cost and reliability of Canada’s electrical grids – both generation and distribution – deserves special emphasis. 

Deployment of district energy could massively reduce requirements for new generation and distribution. This could increase both reliability and the supply available for essential uses such as transportation, information exchange and space heating and cooling where district energy is not feasible.

A focus of the Boltzmann Institute’s current work is to identify where deployment of district energy systems would be feasible, for both new and existing buildings, and to assess optimal amounts of different kinds of supporting storage.