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Energizing small communities

District energy projects bring more than heat to communities. Carl Chaboyer has spent years working with district energy projects and says the benefits outweigh any possible deterrents, including fiscal.

Speaking to the Biofibe 08 conference held in Winnipeg, Nov. 14, 2008, Chaboyer said it is debatable whether the projects he worked with were actually the cheapest method of heating. But the communities he has worked with are happy with the community approach.

The “district energy expert,” who studied mechanical engineering at Lakehead University but did not complete the program said he feels qualified to be called an expert if the definition is “making every mistake possible.”

Working with Grassy Narrows First Nation as a technical adviser and then general manager of their renewable energy utility, as well as helping the Ouje Bougoumou Cree Nation in northern Quebec has given him expertise only found in hands-on work.

“This is the first native community in Canada where you are able to own 100 per cent of the house you are living in,” he said. “It is innovative on every level.”

It has 212 housing units. Each of these units were built to be energy efficient. “This community is much more self sufficient from an economic standpoint than most communities of its size in Canada, native or not,” he added.

He said it is a myth that capital expenses are huge. He found systems could be designed that don’t necessarily require large expenses.

Not only does the community capture revenue from heating, but within the community high-quality local employment is created. People need skills to help operate the equipment and once trained, these jobs are desirable and command salaries that can take impoverished families a long way. The increased skills add wealth and increases community self-reliance. “It’s a source of community pride,” he said.

A district heating system using renewable resources as fuel is better for the environment if managed properly. Depending on the fuel source overall operation expenses can be decreased. “The less you handle the fuel the more money you make,” he said.

Ouje Bougoumou faces challenges because of that. Set up on clear-cut land that had some regrowth, the sawdust needed to heat the district system must be brought in from afar. The population of Ouje Bougoumou realize that clear-cutting the new growth in the area will not ultimately provide sustainability, so wood must come from further away.

“Sustainable is more expensive than clear-cutting,” Chaboyer said.

Grassy Narrows faces a similar problem because mass clear-cutting had been allowed in the area for years.

“You have to go some distance for good-quality fuel,” he said. Once that is done, the system is no longer cost effective.

But Chaboyer believes in the systems because of the benefits brought to communities.

And despite being a Manitoba Hydro employee, Deny St. George thinks it’s a good idea for communities to consider this model. Even with access to cheap hydro, Manitoba could benefit from diversity.

St. George agreed with Jan Buijk, vice-president of Canadian District Energy Association who noted in an earlier presentation that all energy ends up as heat.” St. George said if the cost of fossil fuel suddenly skyrocketed, Hydro could not keep up with the demand for electrical heat. Having options and diversity ensures more sustainability.

Chaboyer recommended that interested community groups go to www.retscreen.net.

The program is designed to make the planning process much easier.

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