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The uncertain future of geothermal

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Parkland resident David Hayward poses at the subdivision’s geothermal pump house. Hayward and others would like to get off the geothermal heating system. Donna McMahon photo

A crowd of Parkland subdivision residents is expected at Gibsons Town Council on Tuesday, April 18 when Director of Engineering, Dave Newman will bring forward a plan to assess the operations of the Gibsons and District Energy Utility (GDEU). A leak in the geothermal heating system last winter left residents without heat during a cold snap, prompting concerns about the system.

The Town’s geothermal utility dates back to a feasibility study conducted in 2008. Development costs for the utility, which is the first of its kind in North America, were largely covered by grants, and it earned the town a Community Energy Association Award in 2009.

All houses in the Parkland subdivision are required to use the geoexchange utility as their primary source of heat. The Town pays for construction of geothermal fields and operates the utility, while the developer must install distribution lines and service connections. There are 58 housing units in the first two phases of Parkland, which is almost built out. Another 25 lots will be developed in phase three.

At the April 4 Town Council meeting, Newman recommended that expansion of the system be put on hold while staff investigate issues with the system, and that the developer be given permission to build phase three without geothermal connections.

“The developer is ready to break ground, so we are holding him up if we wait for the results of this study,” said Newman.

Among the problems that Newman identified is difficulty performing maintenance. “Right now if we have to shut the system down and work on it we have to get everybody on the system to shut down their heat pumps, which is somewhat challenging,” he said, adding that he did not want to replicate existing problems in 25 additional homes.

Mayor Wayne Rowe, who was a councillor at the time that GDEU was established, said that the geothermal system remains popular. “In spite of the problems we’ve had I’m certainly getting correspondence that people love our system,” said Rowe.

Council voted to defer a decision on halting expansion of the system until they receive Newman’s work plan at the April 18 council meeting.

Parkland resident David Hayward, a retired engineering technician who has been researching the geothermal utility since last winter’s breakdown, supports Newman’s recommendations but believes that the utility is “in crisis.” Newman stated in his April 4 memo to Council that the current system can serve 54 households, but Hayward says that it was only designed for 35 to 40 homes.

In 2010 the Town projected that GDEU would become profitable within 12 years, but Hayward is skeptical. He calculates that the $50 per month presently paid by utility customers does not even cover the cost of operating the pump house, never mind maintenance or overhead.

He also claims that the $125,000 budgeted by the Town for construction of a new field for phase three does not represent the full cost of expansion because equipment will have to be added to the pump house.

Hayward said: “There are a few [Parkland residents] that are ‘green at any expense’ and they bought here because of the geothermal and would like to keep it. Most people just want a reliable heat source provider.”

Hayward represents a group of owners who would like to get off the system. “We just don’t want to be part of the experiment anymore. If after seven years they haven’t figured it out, we don’t have any confidence they will do so in the near future.”

Donna McMahon

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