Gibsons' geoexchange holds promise, risk

Brent Richter/Staf Writer / Staff writer
September 1, 2010 01:00 AM

Dave Newman, Gibsons' director of engineering, said all that's left to do now is connect those pipes to heat pumps on soon to be built homes in the successful geoexchange project in the Town of Gibsons.

Buried underneath the streets and parks in what will be the Coast's newest subdivision are hundreds of metres of coils and pipes that no other development in the country can claim to have. Within a year's time, those pipes and coils will be used for heating and cooling the homes above them while producing revenue for the Town coffers - all without greenhouse gas emissions. It's the Gibsons geoexchange utility in the Parkland subdivision.

How it works

Once you get a couple metres below the surface of the earth, the temperature of the soil remains constant year round. By running a series of coils or "slinkies" filled with a 20 per cent ethanol solution through earth, a geoexchange system is able to absorb the earth's heat and transfer it to a central pumphouse. That pumphouse then moves the ethanol through a series of pipes connected to each of the prospective homes in the subdivision. Each home has a heat pump to draw the heat from the pipes and warm the house before sending the cooled ethanol back to the pumphouse and then through the slinky fields to be warmed again.

Dave Newman, Gibsons' director of engineering, said all that's left to do now is connect those pipes to heat pumps on soon-to-be-built homes.

Newman said it has been a learning process, seeing as how there are no other local governments with similar projects to look over the shoulder of, but added that geoexchange is fundamentally very simple.

"It's actually a very basic, very simple system," he said. "It's not much different from any other distribution system, really. The type of construction isn't rocket science. It's basically pipes and pumps. That's our water system."

Once installed, Newman said the slinkies and pipes are designed to last "many, many decades."

How it got there

Council first began discussing the idea after seeing another town awarded the greenest community award at a Union of B.C. Municipalities conference in 2007.

"[Coun.] Bob Curry tapped me on the shoulder and he said, 'That's your job next year that should be us up there,' and I said, 'Well Bob, I've got an idea' and it went from there," said Paul Gipps, the Town's chief administrative officer. "It was a drive from council to be green, do something good for the environment, create revenues. This whole thing was an opportunity to do something better in the community."

The following spring, the Town commissioned a feasibility study and began shopping around for grants. Council was successful in getting $569,000 in grants from the provincial government's Innovative Clean Energy fund and Island Coastal Economic Trust, covering about 43 per cent of the $1.34 million budget.

Gipps said the Town is projecting a full return on its investment and profits coming in within 12 years, though he added that staff are still seeking out more grants to help mitigate the costs.

For homeowners, who must pay to install their own the savings associated with geoexchange versus gas heat will result in a payback period of six years, but he believes the greenhouse gas-free heating and cooling will be an even more attractive selling feature.

What's next?

Mayor Barry Janyk said there is always risk taking on a new project, especially when you are the first in the nation to do so, but he believes that the revenues will be there to help offset taxes on schedule.

"Time will tell how this thing all works. There's no doubt about it, there's a certain amount of risk that the Town inherits, but all it means is that the return on our investment will be extended," he said.

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