District heating in Canada: the way forward for sustainability

District heating in Canada has been experiencing a significant surge in recent times. 

While this expansion is certainly mirroring global trends toward sustainable and efficient district energy systems, Canada also presents several unique idiosyncrasies that shape the development of this sector. 

First and foremost, Canada's abundance of natural resources influences its energy landscape, and district heating is no exception. As such, there's a growing push towards renewable energy sources for district heating, aligning with the country's commitments to reducing carbon emissions.

On top of this, Canada's vast geographical size and diverse climate present several opportunities for district heating, with diverse approaches for densely populated urban areas like Vancouver and Ottawa, as opposed to remote or sparsely populated regions.

Favorable reports for district heating from the IEA describe it as having “great potential for efficient, cost-effective and flexible large-scale integration of low-carbon energy sources”. Together with other supportive reports from other organizations, such as the UN, public authorities are encouraged to promote district energy systems in Canada as a formula for low-carbon heating.

As both private and public bodies recognize the potential of district heating, so do citizens, particularly those exposed to successful district heating initiatives. For instance, when considering public perception in Europe around district heating, a majority of respondents have a positive or very positive opinion on it.

In this context, what is today’s landscape for district heating in Canada and what specific models are gaining traction towards effectively sustainable energy development? Keep reading to find out.

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What does district heating in Canada look like today?

A look at several successful developments of district energy in Canada can serve as a snapshot of the current state of this model in the country.

Perhaps one of the most prominent cases is located in Ottawa. This densely populated urban area has recently undergone significant changes to reduce carbon emissions. Previously reliant on natural gas-fired steam production plants for district heating, the system is transitioning to hot water and electricity-based technologies, such as industrial heat pumps and geothermal heat, as well as free cooling sources from the river. 

Some other noteworthy examples of district heating in Canada include:

  • In Vancouver, residential buildings are being heated and provided with hot water by recovering heat from a sewer pump station, while being able to integrate other renewable sources in the future.
  • In Toronto, office towers in summer can be cooled using water from Lake Ontario.
  • The rural township of Ritchot, Manitoba, has opted for a retrofit district heating system fueled by geothermal energy for their TransCanada center.

Why is district heating in Canada expanding?

The shift to district heating in Canada reflects a broader change towards ensuring energy sources are efficient and sustainable. 

By transitioning from conventional systems based on fossil fuels to sustainable district heating and electricity-based technologies, Canada aims at significantly reducing its carbon emissions.

This is in line with the United Nations’ environmental report ‘District energy in cities: unlocking the potential energy efficiency and renewable energy’, which highlights district heating as “the most effective approach for many cities to transition to sustainable heating and cooling, by improving energy efficiency and enabling higher shares of renewables”.

In fact, here are some reasons and ways in which district energy represents an exceptional solution towards a reliable and sustainable models for heating and cooling:

  • Outstanding energy efficiency: thanks to their centralized approach, district heating systems can achieve significant efficiencies compared to individual models, thus reducing overall energy consumption. As such, the UN report mentioned above claims operational efficiency gains “of up to 90%” thanks to district energy infrastructure, citing Helsinki’s CHP plants often operating “at 93% primary energy efficiency”
  • A reduction in carbon emissions: by incorporating renewable energy sources like geothermal, seawater, wastewater or solar thermal energy, district heating systems can significantly reduce carbon emissions, mitigating climate change and improving local air quality. Again, the UN report explains how the district heating formula allows for “rapid, deep and cost-effective emissions reductions, due to fuel switching and to decreases in primary energy consumption of 30-50%”. This is also a reason why district heating has been considered as an opportunity to decarbonize industrial environments.
  • Energy flexibility and resilience: district heating systems can employ a variety of energy sources, thus enhancing energy security and resilience while reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Reduced energy costs: district heating allows for leveraging economies of scale and optimizing energy production and distribution, as well as moving away from price volatility related to fossil fuels.
  • Local green economies: design, construction, equipment manufacturing, operation and maintenance all involve the creation of jobs, supporting local economies. At the same time, energy efficiency projects associated with district heating can inspire economic growth and innovation at a local level, as well as be integrated with modern sustainable construction initiatives.

The future of district heating in Canada: keys to moving forward

Heat pump technologies

Enhancing district heating in Canada (and globally, for that matter) often involves selecting heat pump technologies. Industrial heat pumps offer outstanding efficiency and provide a pathway for transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity-based heat. 

Able to generate substantial heat from low-grade sources, heat pumps also present significant reductions in electricity use as well as the possibility to integrate renewable sources.

Incorporating energy ‘prosumers’ and promoting price transparency

A well-designed district heating network enables the possibility of certain buildings to generate heating surpluses (the so-called ‘prosumers’), and then encourages the sharing of these surpluses. The result is multi-directional heating networks where greater efficiencies can be achieved.

At the same time, successful district heating in Canada, both as retrofit projects and as new initiatives, must necessarily involve end consumers in decision-making processes. 

Ensuring transparency in terms of the economic benefits of district heating and developing tailored solutions for the specific needs of the community will also pave the way for success. 

This is particularly true when it comes to transparency in pricing and operations so that consumers understand the benefits of district heating and are encouraged to participate in the initiative.

This is precisely a key note in the UN report cited above, where the Vancouver district heating initiative was praised for its “transparent connection costs and energy tariffs, enabling evidence of savings for building owners”.

Integration of renewable energies

The choice of heating sources significantly impacts the efficiency and environmental sustainability of the district heating plants. Present and future successful district energy systems in Canada will be based on careful consideration on which renewable sources to integrate. As we’ve seen above, these range from solar to geothermal, heat surpluses, seawater, or sewage, all potential energy sources for heat pump technology.

Embracing Thermal storage solutions

Thermal Energy Storage (TES) tanks provide an extension in energy efficiency for modern district heating. These systems are able to accumulate thermal energy during off-peak hours, to be used during peak demand or costly production periods. As such, the integration of thermal storage is a proven strategy to manage energy peaks and costs effectively.

Interested in learning more about district heating in Canada and the winning formulas for moving towards sustainability and cost-effectiveness in heating and cooling?

At ARANER, we put our thermal engineering expertise to work through our district heating solutions . With a strong track record in designing and implementing successful district heating initiatives around the world, we’re enthusiastic about the efficiencies and environmental benefits this technology allows.  

Get in touch with us and find out more about how we can help you.

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