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Railside development delves deep into geothermal energy

·4 min read

The landscape of The Forks is set to change dramatically in the coming years, as parking lots between the CityTV building and Shaw Park are converted from pavement slabs into an expansive, mixed-use neighbourhood.

On Wednesday, work began on the most essential of services: heating and cooling.

Crews started drilling boreholes into the earth’s surface; laying the groundwork for a district geothermal energy system at the Railside at The Forks development.

The ultra-efficient heating and cooling structure uses pipes beneath the ground to pull both from the natural hot and cold sink.

It is, therefore, a completely renewable source of energy.

“We try and be as green as we possibly can. We looked for ways to do that, and a district geothermal system is the best option for all of the housing and commercial space that will be here,” said Clare MacKay, vice-president of strategic initiatives at The Forks.

The geothermal system, once complete, will service 1,200 new residential units and approximately 100,000 square feet of new commercial space. Partnerships to service other buildings on The Forks grounds, as well as the VIA Rail Union Station building, are also on the table.

“We have successfully done this in the past. About 10 years ago, we did a retrofit of The Forks Market… And that’s a closed-loop system that goes underneath the Assiniboine River, and that heats and cools the entire Forks Market. What’s cool about it is that nobody really notices,” MacKay said.

MacKay said technical estimates show if the development had used natural gas as a heating fuel instead, emissions from the site would have totalled approximately 12,200 tonnes of greenhouse gas each year — or approximately the same emissions as adding 2,600 cars to the road in that time frame.

In Winnipeg, burning natural gas for heat is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In the province, it accounts for about 18 per cent of all emissions.

There have been no efforts by the government of Manitoba to move away from natural gas as a heat source, and Manitoba Hydro has made clear natural gas remains the key part of its strategy for providing heat for the foreseeable future.

In March, Couns. Brian Mayes and Jason Schreyer pushed a motion through the water, waste and environment committee to have the administration study if and how the City of Winnipeg could bring a halt to the expansion of natural gas development.

New builds, like the one at The Forks, show alternative heating technology is being pursued by developers even without the push of the city and province — though, at a slower rate than climate targets would demand.

“There’s been a lot of interest in geothermal. It seems to be growing, but not anywhere nearly as much as it probably should be,” said Ed Lohrenz, a veteran of the industry and owner of Winnipeg-based Geoptimize Inc., a ground-source heat consultancy company.

Most of Lohrenz’s work has been in cities such as Toronto and New York, where he says the uptake is driven by the desirability of the technology from residential buyers, as well as roadblocks put up to discourage the continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Universities, condos, malls — the possibilities for using the technology are endless, Lohrenz said. He believes the biggest impediment to geothermal development is the lack of familiarity amongst mechanical engineers.

While straight electric heat sources might seemingly make sense in Manitoba — thanks to an abundance of hydroelectric power — the sheer amount of energy needed to move from natural gas to electric systems isn’t feasible, according to estimates from Lohrenz and Manitoba Hydro.

“Expanding the electric heat infrastructure would be not good for Manitoba Hydro, and it would not be good for the province,” Lohrenz said.

And so the boreholes are not only a sign of the Railside at The Forks development moving forward after many long years of consultation, but it is also a sign of the move away from natural gas by developers who are considering the decades-long impacts of new buildings.

Other developments in the city that have used similar technology include the Seasons of Tuxedo development on Sterling Lyon Parkway, ALT Hotel on Portage Avenue, Hydro headquarters, alongside countless businesses and homes.

“We’re working on heating and cooling right now. And with the buildings themselves, we’ll be looking at making sure that they’re as green as they possibly can be in terms of what the materials are, and what goes into the design of them,” MacKay said.

The 12 acres of land is being developed slowly in various phases with different companies. The final touches are expected to be put on the last parcel of land up for development 20 years from now.

Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press

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