It’s a reflection of the North American psyche, and dates back to frontier times. You’ve got to get the job done, and you’ve got to rely on yourself. Your neighbour can take care of himself. If he asks for help that’s fine, but the starting out position is I can do it and I will do it and I will ask for help from nobody unless I am utterly desperate.
When the job that needs doing is heating a building, this mindset still prevails. Tell me what the best value for money is, and I’ll go for it. High efficiency natural gas furnace? Perfect. Git ‘er done. Electric baseboard heaters? Fine. Git ‘er done. Wood stove? That’ll do. Git ‘er done.
This snap decision has implications for the next two decades or more, because that’s how long many of these technologies will last. Natural gas is cheap now, but where will the price be in fifteen years? A building owner is choosing to be handcuffed to a particular fuel for a very long time.
The funny thing is, homeowners don’t actually want a furnace, a heat pump, a wood stove, nor is do they want natural gas, electricity, or firewood. What they want is heat.
What if they could just buy heat? What if they could opt to have a heat pipe coming into the house – much like that existing pipe supplying water, or natural gas, or that wire supplying electricity, or that cable supplying internet service? They wouldn’t need to fret about how the heat was generated. No more worries about the price of natural gas or whatever fuel source is in vogue. That’s someone else’s problem.
Oh, and while they’re at it, they can get rid of her big hot water tank. Why bother? Just use the heat coming out of that heat pipe to warm up the water, and Bob’s your uncle.
Sounds like a great idea, but obviously it’s fanciful. Who’s going to build a utility to supply heat?
Chances are that a European reading this is feeling awfully puzzled. What’s this guy talking about? We have a heat utility, and we have for decades. All across the continent, communities have built heat utilities. This type of business is built on a technology is called District Energy (DE).
Oh, DE exists in North America, too, but most people don’t know about it. Universities have been doing it for the longest time. My alma mater, the University of Toronto, has subterranean steam tunnels running all over campus – a fact that the engineering prank squad has long used as a convenient way to access buildings by means less obvious than the front door. You won’t find a conventional furnace anywhere on campus. One big plant supplies the entire university with heating and cooling, and those tunnels get the heat or the cold wherever it needs to go.
The Europeans have done it. Universities have done it. Why haven’t North American communities done it?
One big reason is that can-do attitude, which goes hand-in-hand with a going-it-alone attitude. Whenever a North American is trying to crack a problem, the first question they ask is not, “How can I team up with some other people to solve this?”
DE is all about teamwork. If my furnace runs less than half the time, and ditto for my neighbor, why don’t we just share one furnace? Half the capital cost, half the maintenance. Take that up a notch or two, and what do you get? An entire town or city sharing a furnace. That’s DE.
This kind of teamwork is foreign to most North Americans. Oh, there are long-standing traditions of mutual support in times of crisis, and of banding together for barn raisings, but the prevailing attitude is self-reliance unless there is no other option.
We can’t afford this attitude any more. A DE system is more than just a way to save capital costs by sharing our heating equipment. It is also more efficient than having a furnace in every building. Put another way, failing to implement DE is wasteful. In an age of dramatically rising energy costs and extensive harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot afford the waste that is inevitable where DE is absent.
There’s more. For heavy industry, heat is often a waste product, and it costs them a lot of money to get rid of it. By connecting a DE system to such enterprises, that heat can be spirited away for a nominal cost and supplied to residences, institutions, and commercial buildings. One man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure.
Finally, DE offers a platform for changing the way a community obtains heat. To start, the central heat source is likely a natural gas furnace or boiler. But through economies of scale, DE provides the opportunity to diversify away from a single fuel source – something that is difficult or impossible for someone going it alone. Large-scale geo-exchange systems can use electricity to supply heat, reducing dependence on the price of natural gas. Renewable biofuels like wood pellets can be used for fuel. Anaerobic digesters can convert agricultural waste into renewable biogas. Finally, solar thermal can be deployed on a scale that is far more economical than is possible for an individual building, exploiting a heat source that is free. Coupled with thermal storage technologies, a community can use DE to move toward heating that is 100% renewable.
It’s cheaper. It’s more efficient. It paves the way to a post-fossil-fuel future. DE is an idea whose time has come.
Git ‘er done.