More than two-dozen Parkland residents packed Gibsons Town Hall Feb. 15 hoping for answers about the problems that plagued the geothermal heating system during one of the coldest stretches of the year.
The Geo-exchange District Energy Utility (GDEU) is owned and operated by the Town, and serves every home in Parkland.
According to a letter sent to residents Feb. 9, a fluid leak was detected in the system in early December. At first it was small and hard to pinpoint, but by the second week of January it had become much larger. It was eventually traced to a service connection on one of the lots and fixed. By Feb. 3, however, the leak had caused the concentration of ethanol – used to prevent freeze-up – to drop so much that people were advised to turn off their systems and switch to backup heat.
The residents showed up at last Wednesday’s meeting with their own letter, drafted a few days earlier. The letter talks of the “ongoing problems” and “the impact it’s had on our families, the subsequent devaluation of our homes, and everyone’s uncertainty regarding the utility.”
The residents’ letter also included a list of questions such as whether they’d be charged for service during the outage, whether the system is up to the standards of the Canadian Geothermal Code, how many trained technicians the Town has, and whether people hooked into the utility can have access to maintenance records.
“This incident has certainly exposed some of the weaknesses in our system,” director of engineering Dave Newman said, adding that some bugs are normal with an innovative project like the GDEU. “We’re in the process of engaging a geo-energy engineer to review the system as a whole, as well as to review this particular incident and provide an independent report to staff and council.
“We’re not here to wash our hands of anything,” Newman assured the crowd. “We’re not interested in this happening again. We’re interested in providing you with a reliable service, and we’re going to be examining everything. That’s why we’ve gone to a third party.”
Newman said he expects to have a report in front of council in March about the immediate future of the system, and the expansion to serve Parkland Phase 3. There’s no timeline yet for the consultant’s report.
The residents’ letter also said some of them were “experiencing extremely high electric bills due to excessive cycling of heat pumps to compensate for low temperature inflow and from the use of backup electric heat sources and/or use of emergency backup heat.”
They’re also worried about the cost of potential damage to their heat pumps and other equipment.
Mayor Wayne Rowe said it was too early for the Town to make any commitments on financial compensation, but asked residents to let the Town know about costs incurred during the outage. “If there is something that you feel is a direct result of an interruption of service to your homes, let us know so we have that information available to make a decision when it comes to us.”
The GDEU was established in 2009 and funded through gas tax revenue and other grants as well as a $168,500 initial investment from the Town. The project has yet to break even, but Town officials say with more housing coming online they’re confident it will start to cover its costs in the near future. Last year council approved taking out a $125,000 loan to help pay for the Phase 3 expansion.