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Squamish closing in on district energy

Timing and governance crucial to making plans a reality

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With development in Squamish unfolding at relentless speeds, politicians and planners sometimes find themselves in the awkward position of being simultaneously ahead of the game and about to get lost in the play.

As staff and council move to realize the district energy component of their Community Energy Plan, they find themselves in just that predicament, with a consultant praising their foresight, a utility professional sounding the alarm over hypersensitive timing and Deputy Administrator Brent Leigh dispatched to begin consultations with developers.

“District energy systems need density,” said Glenn Stainton, vice-president of the Lonsdale Energy Corporation (LEC), a North Vancouver district energy provider. “It wouldn’t work to put one in Valleycliffe, where it’s all single-family housing. You need multiple-family housing, compact urban design.”

He’s thinking of downtown projects like the Waterfront Landing and Nexen Lands, where developers propose just that sort of housing.

“Squamish has to move quickly to capture those,” he continued. “That’s your base load.”

A district energy system is a network of pipes that circulate water to a cluster of buildings — a district — and provide heat through a variety of fuel sources, whether gas, geothermal, biomass or a combination. Prototypes date back as far as ancient Rome, when they were used for heating steam baths and greenhouses. In modern times, Europe has re-pioneered the approach, and systems have since been springing up in North America, including the Olympic athletes’ village in Whistler and the four-year-old LEC operation in North Vancouver.

Meanwhile, consultants commissioned by the district to coach the process say Squamish has more demand than Whistler, as well as seemingly sound economics presented by so many new developments — as opposed to the costly prospect of retrofitting for infrastructure installation.

“One of the biggest ways municipalities can reduce carbon emissions and be progressive is through energy planning,” said Councillor Patricia Heintzman. “Before any sort of comprehensive development zone is finalized is the way to do it. It gives developers the incentive to be progressive here. It’s much more financially feasible when you’re doing it at the outset, instead of retrofitting.”

According to consultants to the District of Squamish, a feasibility study could cost between $100,000 and $130,000. There are a number of ways to manage the costs, including risk and benefit sharing.

According to numbers researched by the Squamish Sustainability Corporation, the town’s 15,000 people spend $52 million a year on energy, money that currently leaves the community. That figure, combined with the environmental stewardship implications of green energy systems, has council in support of the project.

Stainton, also a Squamish resident, warned of pushing too much of the costs on developers. “You have to respect the fact that developers have budgets,” he said. “Everyone thinks developers have bags of money. But at some point you make those units unaffordable, and the developer walks away.”

While gentile courtships have won the day in North Vancouver — where there are three mini-plants servicing 1,100 customers — the city also passed an energy services bylaw that mandates district systems where feasible.

Heintzman is interested in that approach. “I’m hoping that work with Holland and Barrs will come forward with those recommendations. We do have West Coast Environmental Law putting in a lot of basically free time, and they’ve helped us with bylaws in the past. And I’m hoping that’ll be a natural result of this process.”

Process, said consultant Alex Boston, is key, and government structure is paramount to that end.

“I think Squamish is ahead of the curve,” he said during this week’s strategy session. “It is moving in directions that other governments haven’t gone yet. But there’s much more that can be done.”

Boston criticized the lack of horizontal structuring in the district’s departmental layout. He proposed an energy, emissions and economy committee to cut across all district departments, thereby projecting every effort through the same sustainable prism. The idea was well received by council.

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