It will cost more than $100 million in infrastructure when all is said and done.
But at the end of the day, Whistler is setting up to save money, and the environment.
A council decision Tuesday night marks a significant step in transitioning Whistler away from fossil fuels such as propane to renewable energy sources such as ground source heat.
Specifically, Whistler council is supporting a move by Terasen to build a district heating system in the village which would use ground source heat pumps. Council is also supporting Terasens extension of a natural gas pipeline from Squamish to Whistler as well as the creation of an energy utility in the resort.
"Its quite exciting to see this sea change happening here and being a part of it," said Terasens Director of Corporate Development, Dietz Kellmann, who made a presentation to council.
The decisions didnt garner much debate at the council table late Tuesday night but its significance wasnt lost on Councillor Kristi Wells.
"This isnt just a commitment to the philosophies," she said, cautioning against taking the decisions lightly.
And while she congratulated staff on the move, she also said it was "a little overwhelming."
The plan is that the village could get its energy from the earth via a heat pump system. These systems could be built under the driving range and the day skier parking lots. Over time, any new village developments will be connected to the system, along with renovations of existing buildings.
The ground source heat pumps will be backed up with natural gas, via the natural gas pipeline, for peak energy demands.
At buildout, with the whole village connected to the district energy heat system, it could cost up to $70 million for the infrastructure, a cost which includes the retrofitting of buildings.
But it would be a phased approach which could take up to 30 years.
"We think its a great financial investment," said Kellmann.
Brian Barnett, general manager of engineering and public works, explained that for every dollar spent pumping heat from the earth, there is $3 in savings. The heat pumps pay for themselves and then some. No other energy source does that, he said.
The same ground source heat pump system will be applied at the Olympic athletes village. It will cost $5 million because it is a brand new development.
The athletes village will be completely fossil free, possibly relying on capturing the landfill gases or energy from the sewage treatment plant to make up for the shortfalls in the ground heat during the peak demand period.
In addition to the significant investment of the district energy system, Terasen is also building a $35-million pipeline. Every home that is connected to the propane system will eventually have natural gas.
"The funding for the pipeline is really going to be through the use of natural gas," said Barnett.
The pipeline will meet the current propane fuel loads and the peaking and back up energy in support of renewable energy options in the village.
"Projected to be in service by 2008, the conversion from propane to natural gas will result in immediate economic and environmental benefits for the municipality as natural gas is both a cleaner and less expensive fuel than propane," explained Barnett in his written report to council.
The plans for Whistler project annual energy savings of close to $10 million not the mention a potential reduction of 35,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
Crucial to this plan is a natural gas vehicle strategy that would involve municipal fleet vehicles and transit buses, along with fleets of other key stakeholders.
One of the comments often surrounding this proposal, said Barnett, is how do we afford this multi-million investment and will energy rates be affected?
Those were the questions posed in a number of letters to council by members of the Whistler Strata Owners Association, a newly formed group representing strata owners interests. The groups concerns include increasing energy rates for their units.
"Theres a potential for this thing to severely increase rates," said Seattle resident and Horstman House strata chair Gary Gardner. "Were seen as a bottomless pit in a lot of ways."
Barnett said rates are already regulated and this investment will not see rates soar.
It has yet to be determined how the municipality will get involved in a renewable energy utility. The municipality could own the utility, if council so chooses. If they choose not to, Terasen will own it.
"A locally managed utility will allow RMOW to be more involved in energy planning, enable council to participate in the establishment of user fees, and allow the community to accelerate the development of alternative energy sources," explained Barnett.
Work will now begin on preparing the legal documents for the new energy utility, among other things.
Whistler will support Terasen in its application to the British Columbia Utility Commission for the construction of a natural gas pipeline to Whistler.