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Low-carbon urban infrastructure: A view from Vancouver

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Photo: Christopher Porter/flickr

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I have a new case study (full pdfsummary article from the publishers) out as part of the Economists for Equity and Environment's Future Economy Initiative. I look at the City of Vancouver's Neighbourhood Energy Utility (NEU), a low-carbon district energy system that hits a sweet spot of clean energy, local control, and stable prices at competitive rates.

The NEU arose as part of a vision for redevelopment of former industrial land into a mixed-use community in the Southeast False Creek area of Vancouver. The first phase included construction of the False Creek Energy Centre and service to the Athletes' Village for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

At the core of NEU operations is a hybrid system of sewage heat recovery (SHR) backed up by natural gas boilers to deliver thermal energy to buildings in the service area. The NEU targets a key GHG mitigation opportunity in buildings through shifting away from fossil fuels for space and water heating.

While the system is not fossil fuel free (due to the natural gas component), GHG emissions were reduced by approximately 56-77 per cent in 2012 and 44-61 per cent in 2013 relative to development that did not include the NEU. This decline in performance between 2012 and 2013 is due to new buildings being added to the existing system, which increase the system's reliance on natural gas. Planned new SHR capacity is added in 2018. Future mitigation opportunities for the NEU could include biomass as a substitute for natural gas.

Capital costs were supported by a federal grant, low-interest loans and self-financing from the City. The NEU's rates are modeled on a traditional regulated utility, with revenues obtained entirely from its customer base. Because the eventual customer base will be built out over more than a decade, the city implemented a rate structure that under-recovers capital costs, running deficits in the early years. Cost competitiveness is a key objective, and the NEU rate structure compares favourably to other DE systems and energy providers.

The NEU is a modern example of public sector innovation. It challenges a paradigm of centralized energy distribution, and links and expands municipal services in a novel way. To reduce risk and achieve economies of scale, the City requires mandatory connection of all buildings in the service area.

As a highly capital-intensive utility, most of the job creation occurs during the construction phase, which involved approximately 50 FTE jobs over a three-year period. Ongoing expansion of the network to new buildings ensures continuing construction work. In NEU operations, there are 3.5 FTE jobs, and these are highly-skilled engineering jobs. While these numbers are relatively small, it represents only 24 buildings and a very small percentage of total energy demand in the city.

The NEU has environmental and economic attributes that could be replicated in other cities (and it is already having an influence in other parts of Metro Vancouver). A key challenge is upfront capital costs, which could be ameliorated by senior government support and through the development of green bonds. But the NEU case also shows how a public utility model can be developed for low-carbon district energy, even in the absence of subsidies.

Photo: Christopher Porter/flickr

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