District Heating Could Service 30% of Canadian Buildings by 2030

District heating comprises a tiny part of a very large energy sector in Canada today but if the Canadian District Energy Association (CDEA) gets its way that will change dramatically over the next 20 years.

In Canada there are 130 operating district energy plants servicing about 1.3% of the building stock according to Mary Ellen Richardson, President of the Canadian District Energy Association. Institutional buildings such as hospitals and universities account for the bulk with municipally owned property making up most of the remainder plus a smaller number of commercial and residential projects.

The results of a study conducted by the CDEA involving 200 Canadian stackholders, available on the association website, produced a grand vision for DE, as ‘district energy’ is referred to by the in-crowd. It calls for a 30% increase in the proportion of building stock to be connected to a thermal energy system by 2030. Furthermore it foresees a requirement that district energy systems are a mandatory element of a community energy plan.

There are numerous benefits to district energy when compared to heating buildings individually that are described by proponents of DE:

• It is more energy efficient.
• A DE plant can use a variety of fuel sources including gas, oil, municipal waste, wood and biomass from other sources.
• Feedstock can be sourced locally and DE plants can be modified for different types of fuel.
• It eliminates the need for a heating unit in individual buildings, simplifying building management and reducing space requirements.
• It pairs a low-grade fuel source with a low-grade heat requirement.
• There is almost no local resistance to DE compared to centralize power generation and distribution systems such as coal and nuclear generating facilities, pipelines, power lines, etc.
• It supports local economies by engaging the community in the maintenance and support of the DE systems.

In other parts of the world, most notably Scandinavia with its similar climate, DE is a much more common and acceptable source of heat for buildings. In Denmark for example 66% of the buildings are heated centrally and in Copenhagen a remarkable 95% use DE.

A panel of municipal representatives from Norway and Sweden speaking at the Sustainable Cities Conference held in Ottawa on February 9th described the use of waste incineration as a common fuel for DE systems in their countries. Contrary to the Canadian experience, there is little to no public resistance to incineration and airborne contaminants such as dioxins are being removed with scrubbers.

In the commercial real estate sector in Canada there is little discussion about DE. This too is likely to change as municipalities across the country prepare community energy plans.

British Columbia’s cities have been leaders in the introduction of DE, a direct result of Provincial environment legislation calling for a reduction in GHG emissions, CDEA’s Executive Director explained. Implementation of Community Energy Plans by B.C. municipalities will mitigate communities exposure to carbon taxes.

In Ontario, the City of Guelph has prepared a comprehensive energy plan called its Community Energy Initiative that has attracted International attention. The plan establishes a goal to use less energy in 25 years than it does today, consume less energy per capita than comparable cities and produce less greenhouse gas than the current global average. Making this commitment has led to a commitment to pursue District Energy.

“District Energy was a game changer in our community energy plan. It was at the centre of paradigm shift or an `ah ha’ moment for us,” said Mayor Karen Farbridge. By replacing Provincially generated electricity with locally generated DE the City achieves significant energy efficiency gains. “DE has become a vital piece of the puzzle that will allow the municipality to achieve GHG emission reduction targets,” she explained.

Guelph Hydro is actively developing three District Energy projects that have the potential to bring 28 megawatts (MW) of local power generation to the City of Guelph and assist the city to achieve its goals.

District energy is not a new idea. The International District Energy Association (IDEA) is a nonprofit trade association founded in 1909 that was established to facilitate the exchange of information among district energy professionals. Today, IDEA, located in the U.S. has over 1,500 members.

The IDEA has produced a compelling video District Energy: Now's the Time. The video describes one of the world’s largest DE systems located in New York City that serves over 1,800 buildings and the University of Austin which has achieved carbon neutrality partly due to district heating. Another example in the video is the City of St. Paul, where a heat and power facility consumes 70% of its fuel in the form of municipal wood residue.

While DE is under consideration by several Canadian municipalities, there are significant challenges that Richardson describes as “two-thirds human and one-third other issues.”. Amongst the ‘other’ issues are financing, ownership structures and achieving building density necessary to achieve economic viability. The human challenge is finding leaders, particularly ones at the municipal level, who will commit to DE projects, explained Richardson.

Given that this topic is relatively unknown to RENX, a lack of information available to public and private sector property companies and organizations many of who are capable of leading DE initiatives is also likely holding back this technology in Canada.

To learn more about DE the CDEA is holding its annual conference in Ottawa from June 13-15. Visit the CDEA website for details.

Part two of this article lists a sample of municipalities who are developing district heating.


Ann launched RENX in 2001 as a part-time venture and has grown the publication to become a primary source of online news for the Canadian real estate industry. Prior to…

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Ann launched RENX in 2001 as a part-time venture and has grown the publication to become a primary source of online news for the Canadian real estate industry. Prior to…

Read more





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