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District heating from the Burnaby incinerator

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Metro Vancouver's WTE, better known as the Burnaby incinerator

Metro Vancouver’s WTE, better known as the Burnaby incinerator

It looks like Metro Vancouver has finally found a use for the waste heat from the Burnaby incinerator:  district heating.

District heating is a type of centralized heating, where a power plant produces heat (steam or hot water) and sends it through pipelines to heat a number of buildings in a district – hence the name.  Anyone who has been to UBC may have seen puffs of steam risng from grates on Main Mall.  These puffs were from the old district heating system, where steam pipes running from the power plant on North Campus would supply heat to the buildings.  Now a more efficient hot water distribution system has replaced the aging steam system, and all of the 800,000 square meters of floor space from the many buildings are heated by the network.

UBC’s is not the only district energy system in Metro (there are several others) but they are much more common in Europe.  Economies of scale mean that these systems are often far more efficient than separate building or home furnaces can be.  This means that fuel costs are lower, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions are produced, for the same amount of heat.

These systems can also be easily adapted for cogeneration of heat and electricity; if you’re going to burn fuel to generate heat, why not use the fuel to also produce power?  The electricity from a cogen is free, so to speak, since the fuel was going to be burned anyways.  UBC’s new system uses a cogen that can produce up to 60 Megawatt.

East Fraser development

East Fraser development

What does this have to do with incinerators?  Well, in Europe many incinerators are a source of heat for district heating  (as well as producing electricity).  It makes sense; the fuel may not be as efficient as natural gas, but hey, it’s free.  Incinerator operators, accordingly, prefer the moniker “waste-to-energy” (WTE) for their facilities.

The Burnaby incinerator was originally designed to produce steam for a neighbouring paper facility.  But with the factory went bankrupt and now the incinerator produces electricity, but now there is no taker for the heat.

But this will soon change: ParkLane Homes’ East Fraser Lands, a new residential development by the Fraser on the old MacBlo site, has contracted for a district energy system from the incinerator.  According to the contractor’s website,

When completed, River District Energy will serve approximately 710,000 square meters of floor space with an alternative thermal energy solution designed for the many LEED Gold buildings in the development. Metro Vancouver`s planned Waste To Energy Facility in Burnaby will supply River District Energy with the renewable thermal energy needed to serve their customers with heat without the carbon footprint found in most other conventional heating systems today.

Laying out the district heating network

Laying out the district heating network

In Canada the environmental community is divided on the merits of WTE.  Some, like David Boyd (author of The Optimistic Environmentalist), like the European approach (few people in Europe oppose these systems).  Others, like Ben West or the CCPA, fear the potential air pollution.  But this is a red herring, in my opinion; very little pollution is released (personally, I would rather live downwind from the Burnaby incinerator than from a large diesel bus depot).  A more serious argument, though, is the cost of WTC facilities.  But Europe’s experience shows that a well integrated system, where both electricity and heat have a role to play in urban districts, are actually community assets.

The East Fraser Lands district energy system is a first step in the right direction.  Hopefully, there’ll be more to come.


Written by enviropaul

March 19, 2016 at 2:06 pm

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