Junking geothermal at former Hydro headquarters

Township to save electricity — and costs — by switching to gas furnaces and conventional air-conditioning at complex that Hydro built with geothermal system in 1989

Among $600K in planned North Dundas Township expenditures at 636 St. Lawrence, including $500K for a new roof

The Full Nelson

by Nelson Zandbergen
Nation Valley News

Back in the day, Ontario Hydro had a thing for geothermal heating and cooling systems.

The provincial utility was quite the promoter of the costly technology for rural homes and buildings when it constructed a new Winchester regional office complex in 1989. Quite naturally, the rambling commercial structure with space-age bubble-top lobby skylight and silvery smooth stucco exterior would feature the ground-source heat-pump technology that Hydro clearly had the hots for.

Thirty years on, the current owner of the building, the Township of North Dundas, doesn’t wear the same rose-coloured glasses. Mayor Eric Duncan and his council colleagues have concluded it’s just not worth continuing the old dalliance with a now-failing system whose leaking coolant loops snake beneath the building and adjacent parking lot. About half of the system’s capacity has been lost at this point, so the township is about to unceremoniously dump the whole works.

Instead, the municipality will install six gas furnaces and an equal number of conventional central air-conditioning units to cover all heating and cooling needs at 636 St. Lawrence Street. It’s probably a pretty good bet that North Dundas’s recently estimated budgeted cost of $100,000  is less — even as a straight number — than Ontario Hydro’s expenditure on the original geothermal system three decades ago.  Factor inflation in, and there’s little doubt that North Dundas comes out ahead. It’s not a stretch to suggest the original builder, in retrospect, should have simply installed conventional heating (oil or gas) and cooling to begin with — rather than bury extra costs in the ground. (Not that Ontario Hydro — and its successor companies — have ever been averse to dumping money down a hole.)

Beyond capital savings, North Dundas officials also expect to enjoy lower operating costs after the swap, which includes — and here’s the kicker — a lower hydro bill. That’s because ground-source heat pumps are not about saving electricity.  “Saving energy but using more electricity is the concept of the thing,” says Ontario energy consultant and one-time Energy Probe founder Tom Adams of Toronto. (And in Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario of 2018, that idea is reason to run for the hills.)

Adams tells Nation Valley News that Hydro’s hyping of geothermal had its roots in a decades-long tradition of encouraging greater electricity usage by the Ontario population — who were even urged in one enduring campaign to “Live Better Electrically.”  The utility wanted consumers to sop up excess power production, he says, while simultaneously trying to prevent erosion of market share to other energy sources like gas and heating oil. This really took off in 1958 when a new pipeline began transporting Alberta gas to Toronto, “and Ontario Hydro had a panic attack.”

Adams points out the purchase of ground-source heat pumps — like solar panels in recent years — was supported in part through subsidy programs. “The essential gem of the [North Dundas] story is that geothermal was the flavour of the month, but it was very dependent on government subsidies to make it happen.” There are those who regret buying in, he adds.

Even now, Adams says, there are programs to help for some elements of these systems. “Thirty years later, it’s still a technology dependent on subsidies.”

$500K for a new roof has you well covered

The township must still seek tender on the heating-and-cooling switchover at municipal headquarters, so the $100,000 figure — now baked into the 2018 budget — is still an estimate at this point. That also goes for the $500,000 budgeted cost of re-doing the building’s flat roof, now due for replacement after 30 years. (The township will use a modern membrane roof system, says Facilities Manager Les Johnston.) Both expenditures will be financed over the next dozen years.

Observation was made at the Jan. 9 council meeting that North Dundas has incurred very little cost of ownership on the sprawling structure since Hydro One turned it over to the municipality almost 20 years ago at a nominal price. And it has enjoyed that benefit while collecting rent from Hydro One for its continued presence in part of the building all these years, Mayor Eric Duncan pointed out.

But Deputy Mayor Gerry Boyce — who has declared that he’s running for mayor — expressed doubts about the advisability of spending that sum of money on the 30-year-old building.

North Dundas received the building from Hydro One at around the same time that Hydro One paid the municipality $4-million to acquire North Dundas Hydro, the former township power utility. Nation Valley News is seeking historical clarification on whether those transactions influenced each other.





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