Geoexchange is how geothermal energy, generated and stored below the Earth’s surface, provides efficient and cost-effective heating, cooling, and hot water to a home or structure. Because the temperature below the surface of the earth remains constant, exchanging heat is more efficient, making geoexchange more sustainable than conventional HVAC, at a fraction of the financial and environmental cost. Known as geothermal heat pumps or ground source heat pumps, these systems use the stable temperature of the ground to store heat energy so it can be pulled back out and distributed into a building using minimal electricity.
There are currently 30,000 earth energy installations in Canada. This is equal to replacing 50,000 conventional cars with electric, planting 19 million trees, or eliminating the need for a 130-megawatt power plant or one million barrels of imported crude annually. Just imagine the potential impact if this was the status quo.
Geoexchange systems only require a small amount of electricity to operate the refrigerant compressor, ground loop pump and fan, which reduces demand for electricity by nearly one kilowatt per ton capacity and can result in 25 to 50 percent lower energy costs compared to conventional HVAC systems. By eliminating the need for fossil fuels, significantly fewer emissions are generated.
If that’s not enough to sell you on geothermal, these systems also boast the lowest life-cycle cost of any heating and cooling system. The mechanical equipment lifecycle exceeds 25 years and overall maintenance, repair, and operational costs are generally less than conventional HVAC systems, despite offering occupants a greater degree of comfort year-round at lower, more predictable monthly rates. More impressively is the below-ground infrastructure itself, which could last beyond life of the building.
While the advantages are clear, up front capital costs associated with installation can be disadvantageous, however the initial investment can be paid back in as few as five years. Especially with a partner like Geosource Energy on your side, this doesn’t have to be a major source of concern.
Since 2004, Geosource Energy has been a champion of geothermal in Canada, offering utility grade construction services and best-in-class drilling. They provide various project delivery models for geothermal systems from construction through to Design-Build-Own-Operate-Maintain (DBOOM).
Through the DBOOM model, a long-term service agreement is put in place which provides unmatched customer service and system management throughout a project’s lifecycle.
Geosource acts as a technology and performance guarantor which is made possible through the creation of an energy partnership. Clients experience a peace of mind and operational stability, as Geosource bears the capital costs across the life of the contract – usually a term of 30 years.
“With a third-party utility bearing the capital cost of that system,” Adam Alaica, Director of Engineering and Development says, “it allows for the capital burden to be taken off of the developer, and through the service agreement it is converted to an operating cost for the end-user.”
Geosource enables this capacity via a partnership with Oakville Enterprise Corporation (OEC), a municipally owned energy and infrastructure company that has an established presence in the geothermal market. Together they bring 30 years of experience and over 300 projects delivered, as well as extensive technological capacity and resources that can better serve client partnerships.
Jennifer Burstein, Vice President of Construction at Collecdev, a developer that has completed nine towers with Geosource Energy to date, provides some insight into the partnership. “Geothermal was an easy decision for us. As one of Collecdev’s corporate pillars is sustainability and environmental stewardship, geothermal was, ‘Simply the right thing to do.’”
Burstein adds, “It just felt natural when they approached us and offered us an opportunity to enter into the space of geothermal. It made sense that they would take on the entire project of geothermal. So not only the vertical drilling, but also the connections, the mechanical systems, and the engineering and project management that goes along with it as well.”
Geosource Energy drills and installs one hundred percent of its own geo fields. It handles all of the technical and geological considerations to support the energy side of a project, freeing up the developer to oversee the real estate aspect, which makes for an ideal partnership in the development space, especially when partners are engaged early in the process.
“Early engagement is critical to success on any project,” Alaica believes. “From a new construction perspective, it is the ideal scenario to design geo into a building from its conception. This is even more critical when the geothermal infrastructure is sited below the building footprint, which is common practice in most facilities.”
Early engagement doesn’t necessarily mean geothermal needs to happen first. Collecdev employed Geosource Energy on the Westwood Gardens project in 2018, which had multiple trades on site at the same time. The space allowed Geosource to drill the bore field in tandem with other onsite activities, the coordination of which was seamless.
Building retrofits are possible, but they are not without their challenges. There may be challenges integrating the new system with legacy facilities and mechanical distribution systems. In these cases, detailed due diligence is required to assess the project viability and may result in the need for deep retrofits, which may come at a far greater cost up front.
Alaica explains that where there is a lack of space in higher density communities, “Geosource has innovated our construction and implementation methods, leveraging things like angle drilling. This is actually something we’ve done with Collecdev in the past, and it can be done for retrofits and new buildings where there is limited space available.”
The project with Collecdev which he was referring to is described by Burstein as a “retrofit-esque infill project, a two-tower new build which was integrated into an existing residence that was about fifteen years old. They deployed this angular vertical-drilling mechanism which allowed us to take a very small portion of land and drill a large amount of loop space at an angle.”
Another advantage of geothermal is flexibility from an architectural standpoint, which is particularly useful for historic renovation projects. Geothermal mechanical rooms are smaller and can be tucked away in lower value areas such as underground parking levels, with no need for unsightly equipment on the property grounds or the roof. Geosource’s strategic alliance with industry leading fluid flow experts, Armstrong Fluid Technologies, ensures that all hydronic equipment and controls used in their geothermal mechanical stations compliments the best-in-class installation on the ground side. This ensures the preservation of a project’s historical integrity while ensuring the most future-forward innovations in space heating and cooling are utilized.
Geothermal can have the greatest impact on multi-residential, commercial, and institutional projects, especially from a cost and performance perspective. For instance, if all the schools in Canada that require replacement of their heating and cooling systems over the next ten years invested in geoexchange systems, energy savings could exceed $1 billion, and the environmental impact would be immense.
Despite its proven viability and the potential of its impact, geothermal only represents five percent of real estate market share in Ontario. This is due in large part to an unfavourable spark spread. Low gas prices make the shift to electrified systems a harder sell, especially where there is a lack of political will, a sense of market inertia, and the need for capacity building on an industry level.
“One of the key challenges for the industry at large is trying to create this renewed groundswell and create political will to really shine a light on geothermal as the leading, and most credible way to help achieve low-carbon, net-zero community aspirations,” explains Director of Marketing and Sales for Geosource Energy, Darryl Chow.
All levels of government have a role to play to ensure that environmental protection is legislated, and that carbon-intensive energy resources continue to be taxed appropriately, while offering incentives up front that can help offset the higher installation costs and encourage the adoption of greener alternatives.
From Alaica’s perspective, “Helping bridge the incremental cost of a higher performance building is the key. If there is any way to allow the development community to reduce those incremental costs, this will help drive the business case for a higher performance building; this is exactly what the geothermal third-party utility model does.”
The construction industry is historically one of the slowest to evolve. There is a commitment to tried and true construction methods, despite the increasing availability of viable alternatives that improve performance and sustainability.
However, as municipalities continue to establish green building standards to help achieve lower emissions targets, the construction industry will have no choice but to adapt to a cleaner, greener approach to design and construction. Geothermal will be an important part of the overall solution.
“Toronto is a great market for understanding how the municipalities can drive change in the building sector, specifically. With the introduction of the Toronto Green Standard, the city is showing leadership in establishing a more prescriptive guideline around energy and carbon performance of facilities, which is a step in the right direction,” says Alaica.
Sustainability is nothing without collaboration, and in the case of green construction, it will require a multifaceted effort of industry professionals, government representatives, and education leaders to ensure the industry has the capacity to support growth in demand. This is particularly true of training what Chow refers to as, “the next generation of sustainable green construction-trades people.”
Fleming College has launched a first of its kind geothermal program to provide a combination of hands-on training in drilling, installation, repair, and maintenance of geothermal systems which will address a growing need for industry accredited professionals.
To support these ends, Geosource Energy created the Sustainability and Renewable Energy in Construction Student Award through the Tridel Corporation’s BOLT Charitable Foundation to encourage students in the field and provide mentorship. As Chow puts it, “We really do have to equip our future workforce with the right opportunities so they can get into this game to put not just Ontario, but Canada on the map as a global leader in the green construction industry.”
As a constant champion of geothermal, Geosource Energy supports Workforce 2030, a coalition of the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) that is dedicated to fast-tracking workforce growth and building industry capacity overall.
In partnership with the CaGBC, Geosource Energy will be convening an expert panel of key industry stakeholders via an interactive webinar that will serve as a masterclass in geothermal heating and cooling. They hope that by having these conversations with individuals involved throughout the design, construction, and operation of buildings, convenings of this nature can break down barriers to the implementation of critical low-carbon technologies like geothermal. The Drilldown: Masterclass in Geothermal Energy is scheduled for April 20 at 12:00 p.m. Eastern via Zoom.
Tune in to learn more and see for yourself how leaders like Geosource Energy and Collecdev are embracing low-carbon alternatives like geothermal for a greener future. The market is ripe with potential, and geothermal is a business decision that can improve lives, save money and the environment, while improving the bottom line.