District Energy…Again!

I know, I know — enough with the District Energy already. But I can’t let go of it because it’s an infrastructure project worth $38 million (as in, the cost of a new central library); it’s being pushed by the province, which means it’s likely to happen; and we have not seen enough information to know whether it makes sense environmentally or financially.

During its January 18 meeting, CBRM council heard a presentation on the subject by CBRM community development coordinator Ken LeBlanc, and Cape Breton Partnership acting president and CEO Tyler Mattheis.

The presentation — which included a potted history of the project and Class D estimates of its cost — ended with a recommended motion:

Move that CBRM council support the funding application to Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources & Renewables for a Sydney District Energy System, and that staff be directed to include the Sydney District Energy System in CBRM’s 5-year capital plan.

LeBlanc and Mattheis told council the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables was reviewing an application for 73.33% funding through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. This would mean an ICIP contribution of $28 million and a CBRM contribution of $10 million for a total of $38 million. But this is based on Class D estimates, which means the actual costs could be higher.

District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger wanted to know when council had agreed to seek funding for this project and was told (by the Mayor and the CAO and the head of Public Works) that it had been one of three projects submitted for funding consideration, along with the new library and an extension to Centre 200.

Furthermore, he was assured that it was this council that had done the submitting.

But when I searched the council minutes, I couldn’t find any motion to that effect. So I asked the Municipal Clerk who has often, in the past, directed me to the relevant motions. In this case, she sent my question to the Director of Engineering and Public Works, Wayne MacDonald who — a week after I posed my question and after I’d posed it again — sent along this:

Capital Priorities 2021_2025 June 2020 updated list


And this:

Excerpt June 9 2020 Council - CBRM Capital Priorities 2021-2025



First, the council that met on 9 June 2020 was not the current council, which was elected on 17 October 2020. And in case you have any lingering doubts, look at this screenshot from the meeting, which was conducted via Zoom back before the tech department had worked the bugs out and the only person visible was the chair:

Cecil Clarke chairing Zoom meeting 9 June 2020


Second, the motion passed was to approve the priorities list and “authorize application by the CBRM [emphasis mine] on behalf of the municipality or community partners as [funding] opportunities arise.”

So, you would think that a funding application for a District Energy project would have to come from the municipality.

But there’s a catch, which is that the District Energy project is listed as a “provincially-led process,” and during the January discussion, CAO Marie Walsh said the province is pressuring the municipality to support it.

And when the province supports something, it has its ways of making it happen. Like getting the Cape Breton Partnership to commission a “detailed study” of the District Energy project — council was told the work, commissioned in 2020/21, was “recently completed,” although it wasn’t provided a copy of the study.

Basically, “provincially-led” seems to mean council is asked to rubber-stamp an application the province has already received.


Third, the District Energy Project included in that list in 2020 was something quite different from what is now under consideration. Back in 2020, any decision about district energy would have been based on a feasibility study conducted by the Danish consulting firm Ramboll in 2019.

At that point, a private company, Enwave, was supposed to be leading the project.

And the calculations made for heat and cooling demand in Downtown Sydney were based on a list of buildings that included five imaginary ones — the waterfront library, the marine interpretive center, the casino and tower, the office tower and the residential tower included in Harbour Royale Development’s waterfront plan.

Since all five buildings were deemed candidates for district energy — unlike many existing buildings, including the Cruise Pavilion, Centre 200, the YMCA and the Citizenship & Immigration building (Sydney GCOB in the list, Government of Canada Building) — I have to think that skewed the calculations:
Heat and Cooling demand

Ramboll’s study considered a variety of district energy options before deciding that biomass presented the best option “environmentally” (that is, in terms of reducing emissions) while treated wastewater presented the best option “financially.” But as I reported in 2020, that’s not the whole story. The authors noted that in all scenarios:

…building conversion costs are assumed to be paid for by external grant funding [emphasis mine] as the burden of covering these costs greatly reduces the economic benefits of the project.

Elsewhere in the report, the authors estimate this tab at $4.1 million.


Last word

Council will have final say on the District Energy Project, which it has agreed to discuss during budget talks, but the province has put its thumb on the scale by indicating its willingness if not downright eagerness, to fund it.

I would like to hear someone from the Department of Natural Resources & Renewables explain why, exactly, they’re so keen on this project, which involves constructing a plant to extract energy from effluent from the Battery Point Sewage Treatment Plant and using that energy to heat or chill water that will be piped to client buildings — commercial and municipal buildings — in Downtown Sydney.

LeBlanc admitted to council the system only makes sense in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions if the plant itself runs on a renewable source of electricity. But if such a source of electricity were available, would it not be more feasible for Downtown Sydney buildings to use it for heating and cooling? (Maybe it wouldn’t be, but I would like to hear someone explain why.)

I would like to hear what happened to Enwave, the private company that was supposedly leading the charge for this project (meaning, it chipped in on a feasibility study that was otherwise publicly funded). As I said before, I’m not sorry to see them go — I think power utilities should be publicly owned — but I would like to know what made them decide against the project.

But I would also like to know why the province is focusing on commercial buildings in the downtown instead of homes — it would be interesting to see how far $38  million would stretch and how much of a reduction in emissions it could achieve were it used to help CBRM residents make their homes more energy efficient. (This, obviously, relates to this week’s story about Nova Scotia Power’s proposed rate hike.)

It is possible the more “detailed” study commissioned by the Partnership answers some of these questions, which is why it should be made public.



Speaking of the CB Partnership, I’ve been trying to get a sense of its budget and, after I discovered it had received over $3 million from the Department of Labour in 2020/21, I asked for a breakdown of that funding and here it is:


LAE projects with the Cape Breton Partnership 2020 21 - CB Spectator