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The District Energy Centre

Downtown Calgary’s best-kept secret

Calgary district energy centre.

The District Energy Centre, in Calgary’s East Village, is a perfect example of ENMAX going beyond the scope of its conventional business and driving out value to the community with more responsible energy generation and distribution.

“It’s probably the best-kept secret in downtown Calgary,” says Patrick Bohan, director, district energy and combined heat and power, ENMAX Corporation.

“Essentially it’s a centralized heating system where we have a centralized generation facility that produces heat and then we distribute the heat through underground pipes to buildings throughout Calgary’s downtown. The essence of what we do is we displace building boilers, or the building heating systems, with a heat transfer station that allows our heating network to heat those buildings.”

The District Energy Centre is truly one of downtown Calgary’s best-kept secrets. Situated at the gateway to East Village on 9th Avenue and the 4th Street SE underpass, the building is seen each day by thousands of motorists but not many likely know what it does and its impact on the area. Its unique and modern design fits in nicely with the architecture coming out of the ground in East Village such as the National Music Centre, highrise condo towers and the Central Library.

Engineering for the District Energy Centre began in 2008 with construction starting later that year. The plant was completed in March 2010. The building is about 25,000 square feet and it has four boilers. Last year, it approved the installation of a little power plant for combined heat and power that will be commissioned by the end of this year. The power plant will produce electricity to be used on site and the excess will be exported to the grid. It will produce heat as a byproduct of producing that electricity.

Bohan says the heat coming off the power plant will displace between 15 to 17 per cent of the heating fuel or natural gas that would be used to heat the hot water.

The District Energy Centre’s network reaches into East Village, Victoria Park, the beltline and the downtown.

“We follow demand. We’re trying to find the large buildings, the higher-density developments, which is what we are really liking about that intra-urban development,” says Bohan.

The direct impact on people is much larger than at first thought with numerous buildings part of the network – two senior residences, city hall, the National Music Centre, Bow Valley College, the Salvation Army building and condo towers in East Village. The massive Telus Sky skyscraper, a mixed-use development in the heart of downtown, has recently signed on.

“As for the number of people impacted, we’re still doing some work on that but it’s way larger than we initially thought,” says Bohan.

Whether people are having a coffee or lunch in the trendy Simmons Building in East Village, going to school at Bow Valley College, visiting the National Music Centre or working at city hall, they are enjoying the benefits of the District Energy Centre but have no idea it exists.

Currently, there is six to6.5 million square feet of commercial, institutional and residential buildings connected to the system and capacity is being added to heat up to 10 million or more square feet.

“We will continue to grow to meet demand. The interesting thing is that demand is high. That’s been a very nice evolution in the business,” says Bohan. “The city’s planning department is putting a lot of pressure on building codes and practices to drive out more energy-efficient buildings.”

Bohan says the centre is an example of ENMAX’s commitment to developing projects that involve responsible energy production and distribution. Initially envisioned by city council, a number of senior company executives and board members then visited northern Europe to research what the future of energy distribution would look like.

“Some people say the biggest reason they see value in connecting is they don’t have an entire floor plate dedicated to a boiler system in their building. They’ve got now 20,000 to 25,000 square feet they can release, sell as condominiums or they can actually use that space. I had a friend of mine tell me once that I’m not in the energy business; I’m in the real estate business. We’re basically giving space back to the developer,” adds Bohan.

ENMAX services more than 650,000 commercial and residential customers with an expertise in maintaining and operating generation, transmission and distribution assets throughout the province. It powers the homes of more than 530,000 Alberta families and more than 40,000 Alberta businesses.

Electrical energy is its primary business but ENMAX also provides thermal energy through its District Energy Centre. It is utilizing an old concept, district heating, to help bring the historic East Village community back to life and heat the core of the city.

The District Energy Centre is positioned to provide much-needed thermal energy generation to more than thousands of residents in East Village and in the downtown. It is cost effective and a resilient alternative to traditional methods of generating building heat.

One of the innovative ways ENMAX is working to achieve this is by integrating combined heat and power (CHP), commonly referred to as cogeneration, into the District Energy Centre. By doing so, the efficiency of the facility will increase from approximately 85 per cent to nearly 90 per cent. The real estate industry is a direct benefactor of the current District Energy configuration, as well as future expansions, due to the long-term efficiencies and environmental impacts of centralized thermal and electricity generation.

The ENMAX District Energy Centre generates 55 megawatts (187 million BTUs) of thermal energy, in the form of hot water, and distributes it through a network of insulated underground pipes to buildings. The heat is transferred from the thermal pipeline, via a plate heat exchanger, in the customer’s building and is used for space heating and domestic hot water in commercial office towers, institution buildings and residential condos.

Bohan says it provides building owners and operators an alternative to traditional heating systems, produces less GHGs over 20 years, is cost effective and is simple to connect to.

Here are some of the benefits, according to ENMAX:

  • Reduced operational risk associated with owning boiler assets and the avoided capital spent to install or replace them. This in turn leads to increased efficiency, productivity and revenue through reduced operating expenditures.
  • There is no longer a need to purchase/replace, operate and maintain boiler plants for domestic hot water and space heating within the building. Boilers can cost up to $1 million for certain buildings. All the space which would have been allocated to this mechanical infrastructure can be recovered and repurposed for lease to generate new revenue.
  • Building operators can focus on providing increased customer service to tenants as opposed to maintaining a boiler plant.
  • The carbon footprint of the building is reduced by connecting to an environmentally-responsible energy source which can contribute to attaining designations such as LEED.
  • The building will have increased thermal energy security from built-in redundancy at the District Energy Centre. In addition, emergency connections are installed at the customer building to allow for continued service via mobile heating plants in the event of a service interruption.
  • By connecting to District Energy, building administration will have a guaranteed thermal energy rate for the term of their contract allowing for accurate long-term budget forecasting.
  • There is no capital expense required by the building owner to connect to the District Energy system. ENMAX assumes all the capital risk to connect each building and owns and maintain all equipment installed at the customer site for the term of the thermal energy agreement. There is no maintenance of this equipment required by the building operator.

Combined heat and power (CHP) is essentially a reciprocating engine that combusts natural gas, or some other fuel source. Attached to the engine is a generator that rotates to produce electricity that can be used to service a building or be sold into the electricity pool. The heat produced by combusting natural gas is harvested off of the engine and is used to heat water inside boilers within the District Energy Centre.

The plant continued operating during the great flood in the summer of 2013. As part of its resiliency efforts, ENMAX put in what amounts to be aquarian glass on the basement windows.

“We have got the built-in resiliency and redundancy in our plant and it’s our intent to deliver services whenever possible. One of the key things is that instead of having 15 separate boiler plants that are managed and maintained on 15 different sites, we’ve got one,” says Bohan.

It is the only District Energy Centre that ENMAX currently operates but it is developing a few other sites for the future. Also, the company has a small power plant outside the Village Square Leisure Centre providing heat for the pool and electricity for the inside.

ENMAX has been working with the City of Edmonton to implement a District Energy System in downtown Edmonton similar to Calgary.

“This is where the capital cost value proposition really resonates. We can put in place heating, cooling and power on a customer site. The fact that it’s responsible generation that we’re going to be able to use the heat that is produced as a byproduct of making electricity to heat and displace natural gas combusted for heating, that’s really resonating with developers right now,” says Bohan.