British Columbia

Northern B.C. cities find sustainable ways to stay warm during cold snaps

Prince George and Fort St. John demonstrate the viability of going green in cold climates.

Prince George and Fort St. John demonstrate viability of going green in cold climates

The flag held by Mr. PG, the towering wooden mascot that stands over Prince George, was frozen in the cold on Monday, Jan. 14, 2020. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

The temperature in Prince George dropped to –44 C last week, but the municipality's renewable energy heating system had no problem keeping city hall warm and cozy.

It was the coldest temperature the northern city had experienced in more than four decades and, in the days leading up to the cold snap, city officials weren't entirely sure their unique heating system would be able to keep up. 

"Until you actually reach those extremes, there's always that question," said Wil Waddell, Prince George's manager of utilities. "But we were able to do that without supplementing at all with any natural gas.

"This is the highest usage we have ever seen," he added.

Prince George's renewable energy system involves a partnership with the local Lakeland Mills sawmill. Wood chips and shavings from the mill — which otherwise go to waste — are burned to heat water that is then pumped through more than three kilometres of underground piping, providing heat and warm water to nearly a dozen downtown buildings, including the library, city hall, the courthouse and the downtown public pool.

The heating system became operational in 2012 after Prince George received $11 million to fund the project from the provincial and federal governments, as well as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. 

"There are only a handful of municipal district heating systems in Canada that primarily use a renewable fuel source and for Prince George to be able to operate at 100 per cent through such a cold period is certainly a positive achievement," Raymond Boulter, a national expert on community energy systems with Natural Resources Canada, said in a city news release.

"It shows that renewable, low-carbon heat is possible even in Canada's northern communities."

While a renewable energy system kept people warm in Prince George, a sustainable, ultra-low energy building known as a passive house achieved the same thing a few hours north in Fort St. John. 

"The best way to think about [a passive house] is it's just a typical house, but you put a nice, big winter jacket on it," said Ryan Harvey, Fort St. John's communications coordinator. "So, it's extra insulated, using superior windows and doors, and no holes in the exterior walls."

The innovative building design has begun to pop up across Canada over the past few years. 

According to Harvey, an electric baseboard and the warmth of daily use heat Fort St. John's passive house, which houses civic offices and is not attached to a natural gas line. 

Fort St. John completed the passive house in 2014 as part of its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The city has committed to reduce its emissions by 12 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030. The city's website claims it maintains a "carbon neutral status in its corporate operations."

Both cities view these alternative energy approaches as viable examples for how municipalities can lower their emissions, even in –40 degree weather. 

"It just makes sense to look at how we can reduce our usage," said Harvey.

On Jan. 13, in the thick of the province's recent cold snap, B.C. used more electricity than ever before, a staggering 10,302 megawatts, surpassing the previous record of 10,194 megawatts used on Jan. 3, 2017.

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