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Garbage, methane some of the options for heating athletes village

Municipality looks to refine choices with community stakeholders

Whistler’s Olympic athletes village could have a state of the art heating system fuelled by garbage or it could have simple traditional electric baseboard heat.

It could be powered by energy harnessed from a nearby river or the geothermal heat deep under the ground. It could even be powered in part by the methane gas leaking off the Whistler landfill.

The decision has yet to be made.

But after a presentation at Monday’s council meeting, one thing is certain; the options for heating the Olympic athletes village, and ultimately Whistler's newest neighbourhood, abound.

"There's some really exciting options here," said Jennifer Sanguinetti, a principal in Keen Engineering.

Keen Engineering was commissioned by the municipality, Terasen Gas and B.C. Hydro to do a feasibility study on the options for the athletes village district heating system. Those options range from the conventional to the latest in renewable energy technology.

The options also range in capital costs, operating costs and sustainability benefits, leaving the municipality and the community in a unique position to make a choice about its future.

In her presentation to council Sanguinetti put forward a potential option that uses both proven and suitable technologies as well as having greater sustainability benefits than some of the other choices. It would see Whistler use the Enerkem Gasification Process, a relatively new technology developed by a Quebec-based company whereby municipal solid waste can be transformed to produce heat and electricity. It would cost about $4.5 million to build, as opposed to $300,000 for baseboard heaters, but the long-term financial opportunities show the municipality could actually save money down the road by using this renewable resource.

"You're powering yourself off of waste," explained Sanguinetti.

Using this system, Whistler would not have to ship its garbage elsewhere, which is currently the municipality’s long term plan after the landfill closes this year.

"You're becoming a lot more self-sustaining," she added.

Whistler would have to modify its waste disposal behaviour, however, by removing all recyclable material, all compostable material, all batteries and all PVCs.

But the Enerkem energy cannot be stored. There will be times when the system is producing too much heat and other times when it won’t be able to meet the demands during the winter season. Using ground source heat pumps could make up the shortfall in the winter.

Sanguinetti also recommends Whistler take advantage of the gas coming off the landfill. That methane gas, which is just seeping into the atmosphere as a dangerous greenhouse gas, can be channelled to produce about one-third of the energy requirements for the athletes village for the next 10 to 20 years.

These are just some of the options that need to be investigated further, she said.

Councillor Gordon McKeever can already see some challenges ahead. The landfill gas is a limited resource and the Enerkem system is fuelled by garbage, when ultimately the municipality is trying to move towards a zero waste society.

"One fuel source is finite," he said. "The other one we're trying to get rid of."

Sanguinetti’s answer is that Whistler could gasify someone else’s waste or look at an alternative fuel source system such as wood waste. There are all sorts of options, she added.

The pressure to make a decision quickly on the athletes village district heating system has eased somewhat since Terasen Gas announced their proposed gas pipeline from Squamish to Whistler is no longer connected to the highway construction.

By building a low pressure pipeline rather than a high pressure pipeline, Terasen can build it closer to the highway at any time.

Keen Engineering recommends the municipality embark in a consultative stakeholder process while at the same time doing another study to analyze the energy needs of the resort as a whole.