District Energy: I Surrender

This article is me, metaphorically waving a white flag.

I have tried to get an answer to a pretty simple question — when did CBRM council decide to throw its weight behind a $38 million district energy project for downtown Sydney?  — but it has proved ridiculously difficult.

The question occurred to me as I was watching a presentation on the project during council’s January 18 meeting. The presenters were CBRM community development coordinator Ken LeBlanc (whose involvement with the project began when he was an employee of Efficiency Nova Scotia; he joined the staff of the CBRM in April 2020) 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.

As I’ve written before, District 10 Councilor Darren Bruckschwaiger asked when this council — the one elected in October 2020 — had submitted the funding application for this project and was told it was one of three projects council had approved for potential funding: district energy, a new central library and an expanded Centre 200.

But when I started looking for evidence that council had approved this list of projects, I couldn’t find it.


Green stream

Wayne MacDonald, director of Public Works and Engineering, pointed me to a list of CBRM capital priorities for 2021-2025, a list approved in June 2020 — that is, a list approved by the last council. (It included the district energy project, but attached no dollar figure to it and specified it was “provincially led.”)

My own research took me to the minutes of a special council meeting on 31 March 2021, during which council was told the CBRM had been asked to complete a questionnaire to help the federal government design its “green and inclusive buildings fund.” Council was asked to “direct staff” to include these three “identified projects”:


CBRM Projects

None of these, you’ll notice, is a district energy project.

During the meeting, MacDonald stressed that it was early days and the list was intended just to give the feds an idea of the kinds of projects municipalities were considering. In a 14 March 2021 email to CAO Marie Walsh, MacDonald said:

Should a specific approval and project prioritization be required, I believe that would need to be a Council Decision.

In May 2021, when I was covering the budget talks in detail, the five-year capital plan included the three possible options listed above — the library, an extension to Centre 200 and “Efficiency Updates.”

(This explains why, in their first version of the presentation given on January 18 — the one that had been scheduled for October 2021 — LeBlanc and Mattheis had ended with a motion to add the district energy project to the CBRM’s five-year capital plan.)

But on Friday, Patricia Jreige, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables informed me that the “CBRM applied to the Department’s call for projects in July [2021], proposing the district energy project.”

So my question is, at what point, between May 2021 and July 2021 did council agree to submit the district energy project — which wasn’t included in the five-year capital budget — for funding?

CBRM spokesperson Christina Lamey told me in an email last week:

The District Energy project is on CBRM’s approved capital project list for 2021-25. However, there was no specific dollar figure attached to it. Since then, estimates have been formulated and an application put forward.

And while it may have been on the list approved in 2020, it wasn’t among the three projects included in the capital plan in May 2021. And the question remains, WHO put the application forward?

The request on January 18 would ensure that accurate cost estimates for each year would be included in the plan. The specific ask for Council to support the funding application is because NS Department of Natural Resources requested that CBRM Council make a motion of support prior to completing the application review.

This suggests council did not put the application forward because had council submitted the funding application, the department would know it supported it.

It looks to me like council didn’t finalize this list and approve these three projects.

And if I’m wrong, then please, somebody, point me to the relevant council resolution.



I also asked the province when Enwave, the private company that was supposed to be leading the district energy project as recently as 2019, ceased to be a part of it and was told by Jreige:

The Province wouldn’t comment on the business of a private company.

And I asked if it were true the province was pressuring the CBRM to support the project (as CAO Marie Walsh had stated during the January 18 meeting) and if so, why, and was told:

As with all projects being considered under the call, we are working with the proponents to ensure program requirements are being met.

I have submitted a FOIPOP to the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables to try and gain some greater insight into this project but that will probably take a while so in the meantime, we’ll have to hope it gets a proper airing during the upcoming budget talks, during which council plans to discuss it.