Markham community will use geothermal in all its homes, but some critics aren't hot on it

A unique partnership proposes using geothermal technology to reduce the carbon footprint for an entire community in Markham. But some are skeptical that the technology will work in southern Ontario's climate.

Development in north Markham will have some 300 homes

Berczy Glen is a project in partnership with the city of Markham, Mattamy Homes and Enwave Energy Corporation. The 300 homes will use a district geothermal system, believed to be the largest of its type currently proposed in Canada. (submitted)

A neighbourhood being planned in Markham will be the first in Canada to connect all its houses to a geothermal energy system -- which will harness the heat from deep within the earth to not only to warm, but cool the homes.

Construction on the new community of Berczy Glen, planned in the area of Elgin Mills and Warden avenues, won't begin until 2020 at the earliest, but the partners behind the ambitious plans were announced this week.

Mattamy Homes plans to build the 300 home community. (submitted)

The city of Markham, Mattamy Homes and Enwave Energy Corporation plan to build the 300-home community, which will use what's known as a district geothermal system, the largest of its type currently proposed in Canada.

"I'm very excited about it. I think everybody should be excited about it," said Subhi Alsayed, the vice president of, sustainable development for Mattamy Homes.

Geothermal technology has been around for decades, he said.

It essentially uses the heat of the earth deep beneath the surface to regulate temperature, and is considered one way for homes to work toward a "net zero" energy footprint — meaning they produce at least as much energy as they consume.

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Subhi Alsayed, Mattamy Homes vice president of sustainable development, says geothermal technology uses the heat from deep beneath the surface of the earth to heat and cool homes. (Mattamy Homes Limited/submitted)

Geothermal works on the same principles as a refrigerator or air conditioner. Tubes filled with liquid refrigerant absorb heat from beneath the ground to help heat the homes in the the winter and it acts as a heat sink to help cool the homes in the summer.

That makes the home more energy efficient, because in Canada most energy consumption is related to heating and cooling homes.

But Tom Adams, an independent energy analyst, researcher and former executive director of Energy Probe, is skeptical.

Energy consultant Tom Adams says in places where there is more geothermal activity it completely makes sense. However, experiments with the technology in Canada have been less successful. (CBC)

"This is one of those things that I wish would really work," he said. "But I think we need to be kind of chastened by history."

Adams says in places where there is more geothermal activity, such as Iceland or parts of California, it completely makes sense.  

However, experiments with the technology in Canada have been less successful.

"There's been a tremendous amount of research that's been done on these things because the theoretical potential is there," Adams said. 

"But when the practicalities come to bear, it turns out that it's a lot harder than many of the advocates had hoped."

But Alsayed said the plan doesn't really hinge on one single technology.

"I mean, geothermal is a cool technology. But, in my opinion, the innovation here that we're bringing to the industry is not just in the geothermal system, it's in the business model that we're introducing to the market," he said.

Alsayed said partnering with Enwave Energy, a company with experience in district and community energy systems to install and operate the geothermal system and supply heating cooling and domestic hot water to all the homes, is a groundbreaking concept.

"We think this business model is going to enable whatever technologies are going to come down the road, because honestly, today we think that geothermal is cool, but there's other technologies that we don't even know of," he said.

Alsayed said other communities should be watching the project, since provincial and federal governments are considering net-zero construction standards by 2030.

Fernando Carou, Senior Engineer for the City of Toronto's Community Energy Planning, says geothermal systems can work on a large scale in Canada and the New Civic Centre in Etobicoke will employ the technology along with other renewable energy sources. (LinkedIn)

Fernando Carou, manager of community energy initiatives at City of Toronto, says a new civic centre planned in Etobicoke will use geothermal, as well, sewer heat recovery and solar for heating and cooling.

And he says there's a common misconception about the term geothermal and confusion about how it works.

"Unlike Iceland we truly don't have geothermal -- we're not drilling you know three kilometres down and finding hot water," says Carou. "What we're doing actually is we're using the constant temperature of the earth."

That means heating a building is not done from scratch, but rather moving the energy from the ground to the building to provide a baseline temperature in the winter and then returning the heat to the ground from the building in the summer.

"So essentially the ground becomes a natural source of energy for the winter and it becomes a sink of heat in the summer when we want to cool the building," said Carou.

A concept rendering of the new Etobicoke Civic Centre Precinct (aka the Six Points) which will employ geothermal, along with other renewable sources of energy. The aim is to be a net-zero community to comply with the TransformTO Climate Action Strategy. (Henning Larsen Architects/supplied)

He says the New Etobicoke Civic Centre Precinct, also known as the six points intersection where Bloor, Dundas and Kipling meet, will incorporate a geothermal system along with other renewable energy sources to reduce carbon emissions.

"It's a more efficient way to heat -- it's extremely efficient and ultimately we're displacing the job of natural gas or other fossil fuels and that's exciting," he said.

Carou says when completed, six points will be Toronto's first net zero community -- meaning the total amount of energy used on an annual basis is roughly equal to the amount of energy produced through renewables.

City Council approved the design for the project and pending a financial review, construction won't begin until 2022 at the earliest.

That's two years after shovels are expected to break ground at Mattamy's Berczy Glen project in north Markham.


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC National News

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with three decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.