Get ready to Ramboll

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Welcome to the Promised Land

Last week I hinted that I would be talking more about GEERS in this post, but breaking news – especially good news – trumps prior plans.

In case you didn’t see my tweet yesterday, Guelph’s Community Energy Initiative (CEI) got a big shot in the arm from across the pond. Danish District Energy leader Ramboll Group announced that it was setting up shop here. This is a tremendous economic development win for the city, but it’s only the beginning.

The origin of this news flash dates back to 2007, with the creation of Guelph’s CEI. The plan set a goal to use District Energy (DE) to produce significant energy efficiency gains for the city. (If you need a DE primer, I recommend my prior post Git ‘r Done.) At the time, this was a bold and, at least on this continent, unique proposition. Many cities had DE systems – some, like Veresen’s system in London Ontario, dating back nearly a century – but no city stated its intention to build out a citywide DE network.

Fast forward to 2013. As part of the implementation of DE, Guelph commissioned and published a District Energy Strategic Plan. This document stated a more specific goal – to meet at least 50% of the city’s heating needs using DE by 2041. This was even more bold and ambitious than the CEI objective, and placed Guelph’s plans even further beyond anything any other North American city had in the works.

Then in February of this year, a Guelph delegation consisting of me, Mayor Karen Farbridge, Chamber of Commerce President Lloyd Longfield, and Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc. General Manager Rob Kerr, travelled to Germany to participate in the Transatlantic Urban Climate Dialogue Plus. While in Berlin, our delegation met with a number of leading companies in the European DE market. Ramboll Group was one of them.

We described Guelph’s plans, and delineated how the CEI has enlisted a broad cross-section of the community and enjoys widespread and enthusiastic support as a result. We expressed our conviction that the DE market in Ontario, across Canada, and indeed in all of North America is on the verge of explosive growth. This growth will be driven by rising energy costs, increasing urban densification, and growing concerns over the effect of fossil fuels on our climate. We positioned Guelph as the gateway to a market that was about to blossom.

Our case was well received. Each of the three companies agreed to visit Guelph to explore the opportunity further.

In May and June, we hosted delegations from each company. Our European colleagues learned more about the details of our plans, and heard about the prior month’s visit by the Minister of Energy to announce two Combined Heat and Power (CHP) projects totalling 18 megawatts of electricity production. They also toured the city, saw the elements of the DE network that were already in place, and cased out the areas where we planned to continue building this new thermal energy utility.

We soon learned that our estimates of the cost and difficulty of implementing the system were out of whack. North American DE players are project focused, and the costs reflect this. Their European counterparts are program focused and are willing to offer prices with a long-term view. In other words, when ordering, say, 100 metres of DE piping as part of a program to lay over 100 kilometres, a North American company will offer a price for the 100 metre quantity; a European one will price based on the full 100 kilometres. By partnering with our new European friends, we stood to reap the benefits of significant bulk purchase pricing.

Another factor which was out of whack was our understanding of the ease of constructing a DE network. The first thing our Danish friends pointed out was that our roads are straight. So what? At first we didn’t understand why this was relevant. Of course our roads are straight. Aren’t all roads? And why does that matter, anyway?

European cities are, generally, ancient. At least more ancient than the automobile, which is the main reason for straight roads. European cities tend to be constructed along natural features, like rivers, deltas, lake shorelines, or seashores. Pipes are straight. Laying them along Mother Nature’s curves and bends is nightmarish, but it’s par for the course in the mature European DE market.

In North America, straight lines predominate – except for in the centres of the cities that were first settled on the east side of the continent. As you travel west, and as you travel out from the centre of older eastern cities, you find – you guessed it – straight roads. And since DE networks generally follow roadways (like other infrastructure such as water mains, sewer lines, buried cables, and so on), straighter means cheaper.

Another factor is the width of our roads. In European cities, at least in the downtown areas, drivability is clearly an afterthought. Negotiating some of the narrow lanes in anything larger than a Fiat Uno is a hair-raising experience. Installing any infrastructure means that the roads will be shut down for the duration of the work. Crews are lucky if they can find a route for the pipe that doesn’t interfere with existing services.

Our roads don’t feel that wide, but only because most of us haven’t experienced European ones. In some parts of Guelph, our Danish visitors gaped at wide roads, wide shoulders, and wide ditches – for the first time in their careers, they considered that they could run their pipe without halting traffic. It was a completely new and astounding idea for them.

The bottom line is that Guelph – and indeed all of North America – is the promised land for DE. It didn’t take long to reach agreement with all three companies. Ramboll is just the first – more good news is coming to Guelph, more economic growth, more jobs, and an exciting future at the forefront of a huge new market.

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