Abbotsford school district considers thermal-energy proposal

The plan involves geoexchange systems being put in place at six local schools.

The Abbotsford school district is considering a proposal from Fortis Alternative Energy Services (FAES) for geoexchange thermal energy systems at six local schools.

The proposal involves FAES installing, owning and operating the equipment, and retaining the services of district staff for maintenance and emergency response.

The alternative-energy system would be in place at Prince Charles and Terry Fox elementary schools; Howe, Eugene Reimer and Clayburn middle schools; and Rick Hansen Secondary.

The capital investment from FAES is an estimated $4 million. The district would have no up-front costs, but would pay a monthly rate – not yet determined – to FAES for 20 years, with an option to extend the agreement.

Ray Velestuk, secretary-treasurer of the Abbotsford school district, said the proposal is being considered as a means of further reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the district and saving an estimated $75,000 each year in energy costs.

“We have been a leader in this community in innovation in energy management, sustainability, on anything to do with the environment …  (Considering the proposal) is a way to say we want to continue to be a leader; we want to reduce our carbon footprint.”

However, Velestuk said the plan is far from the approval stage.

The district first signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with FAES in May 2011, when the proposal involved most schools in the district and was estimated to cost $8 million in the first year, followed by $5 million in upgrades in subsequent years.

The MOU has since been extended twice – now ending Nov. 11, 2013 – to allow the district time to review the proposal and consider all possible outcomes.

FAES revised its proposal to take some of the district’s concerns into account, but Velestuk said there are still a number of issues to be worked out.

These include the final technical design, contract negotiations, and the implications of whatever decision the B.C. Utilities Commission eventually makes on whether thermal energy system utilities should be regulated.

“There are issues to be worked out that we might not be able to work out,” Velestuk said.

The Delta school district is currently the only one in the Lower Mainland to have already signed an agreement with FAES for thermal energy services. The project involves 19 buildings.

Industry opponents to these projects have expressed many concerns, including the potential regulation of “discrete thermal energy projects,” saying such a decision would enable Fortis BC to “corner the market,” thus impacting free enterprise and limiting customer choice.

Most Abbotsford schools currently run on a boiler system, with the exception of Abbotsford Senior Secondary, which installed a geoexchange system a year ago through funding assistance from BC Hydro and the Ministry of Education.

Tom Louie, the district’s director of facilities, said many of the current systems are aging and need replacing, but not all are suitable for thermal energy.

Geo-exchange heating and cooling is done through the use of ground pumps, which work by transferring underground heat and circulating it through a building.