Science·What on Earth?

Geothermal heating co-op shares warmth among Montreal neighbours

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at a geothermal heating project that emerged in a Montreal laneway and what might be in store for Canada's nuclear waste.

Also: The cost of 2021's climate disasters

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Geothermal heating co-op shares warmth among Montreal neighbours
  • Climate change made 2021 a very destructive year
  • 30,000 shipments of nuclear waste could move through Ontario cities, farmland

Geothermal heating co-op shares warmth among Montreal neighbours

(Submitted by Francine Lauzon)

In 2015, a group of environmentally conscious neighbours in Montreal came up with a bold idea to slash carbon emissions — and heating bills — in their neighbourhood of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie. 

What if they installed a geothermal energy system in the shared laneway behind their homes, so many of their residences could be efficiently heated with electricity instead of gas or oil?

They started a co-operative organization called Celsius and began doing research and applying for grants. 

It's been a long and complicated journey, but this winter, for the first time, Celsius is heating seven homes in the neighbourhood retrofitted with geothermal heat pumps, also known as ground source heat pumps or geoexchange systems.

They include the three-bedroom apartment of co-op member Francine Lauzon, four units inhabited by her tenants in the three-storey building and two units in the building next door owned by her neighbour, Hong So.

Lauzon said she and So would never have been able to afford the heating system or navigate the complicated legal process involved in sharing it among multiple homes without the co-operative.

It wasn't an easy road — the project was scaled back drastically because of a shortage of grant funding. And in the end, eight 150-metre-deep geothermal wells were dug in So's backyard rather than the city-owned alleyway to reduce the regulatory complexity.

But Lauzon is thrilled to be enjoying low-carbon warmth extracted from the ground this winter — and sharing it with her neighbours.

"We're all excited about it," said Lauzon, who pays about $100 a month in fees that will contribute to the cost of the equipment, installation and maintenance, and are expected to decrease over time.

The demonstration project is the first such retrofit in Montreal and possibly in Canada, but Celsius hopes to scale up. 

"This co-op will eventually host more members from eventually more alleyways," said Lauzon, "because the experience that we're gaining here can be reproduced many times." 

The bigger goal is to connect 50 homes and show that neighbourhoods of older homes like hers, built in the 1920s, can be converted to efficient electric heating.

Lauzon said she is looking forward to seeing her first winter electric bill, which she expects to be much smaller now that her building no longer relies on a less efficient electric boiler and baseboard heaters. (She replaced her gas boiler about 10 years ago over climate change concerns.)

The geothermal system also provides air conditioning in the summer, she said.

"That's a great bonus, because we know that the temperatures are going higher right now and it's getting a little tough sometimes in the summertime."

Urban sustainability consultant Emma Loewen conducted research in 2017 for Green 13, a neighbourhood group in Toronto that also wanted to install a shared geoexchange heating system in their alleyway.

"The opportunity to scale up a whole block to decarbonize versus just, you know, one individual house here, one individual house there — that's a massive opportunity," said Loewen, who did the research while pursuing her master's of public policy at the University of Toronto.

At the time, she and her colleagues found the high cost and lack of government encouragement to be barriers to a project like that.

Now, Loewen is a senior associate on the Urban Transformation Team at RMI, a non-profit focused on the zero-carbon transition. She said more financing options for clean energy are available and geoexchange heating is becoming more common in larger multi-residential buildings.

"The reality is, we need to scale up decarbonization initiatives … also for single-family homes," she said. "I think there's still definitely an opportunity in a system like this."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Emily Chung's piece last week on the expansion of Ontario's gas network sparked a lot of comments, as many readers debated the benefits of relying on natural gas for heating or making the switch to electric heating. 

Mike Ryan wrote:

"I live in a rural setting and don't have the same infrastructure that [Keith] Brooks [with Environmental Defence] has in the city where he lives. Our home is heated with natural gas and we have a natural gas fireplace for backup heat in the event of a power failure. On the subject of power failures, we are subject to power outages, some lasting days, every winter. With a switch to electric heat, how would I heat my home if the power goes out?"

One reader pointed out that the article "implied that in areas with unreliable electricity, natural gas furnaces will continue to operate. In fact, in Ontario, all residential furnaces are required to have electric fans and electric solenoid shut-off valves. A gas furnace will not operate without electricity."

Andrew Ross wrote: "We live in Manitoba. In spite of our province having the cleanest electricity grid in Canada, with over 99 per cent of electricity generation coming from renewable sources, Manitoba Hydro actually encourages people to avoid hydro and increase their use of gas. We experienced this when we replaced our furnace last month. Manitoba Hydro, both in person and via their website, encouraged us and encourages the general public to buy gas furnaces, apparently because they want to make money by selling the hydro to other locations outside Manitoba." 

Kyle Drake: "Thank you … for highlighting this topic for readers. My family is two decades into living in a rural, northern Ontario community. One conclusion we've come to that also complements our desire to continue to live here is that we are fortunate to do so with a lower carbon footprint, primarily because our community doesn't have natural gas home heating… We use a forced air electric furnace to heat our home with the ambition to install an air source heat pump. Yes, it is disappointing to know that planning officials in un-serviced communities continue to pursue natural gas for home heating…. Does endorsing these projects result from lack of understanding of the challenges ahead, is it apathy or is it influence from decades of marketing from fossil fuel companies? When was the last advert one saw for a heat pump? Either way, we need a champion to move us beyond natural gas."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There's also a radio show and podcast! Buildings are a big part of Canada's emissions profile, and the push is underway to get them off fossil fuels. In communities and homes, What On Earth host Laura Lynch hears about what people are doing to find greener solutions for heat. What On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The costs of environmental damage

Extreme weather is becoming a regular occurrence across the world – and so are assessments of the damage. This week, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) reported that severe conditions last year led to $2.1 billion in insured damage, making 2021 the sixth-costliest year in our history. Craig Stewart, IBC's vice-president of federal affairs, noted that most of the cost is the result of water-related damage.   

The atmospheric river that flooded southern B.C. in November (including Abbotsford, as seen in the photo below) was the most expensive weather event (with $515 million in claims), although a July hailstorm in Calgary was a close second ($500 million). Other costly incidents included wind storms in Eastern Canada ($152 million), winter storms in Western Canada ($134 million) and the July wildfire that decimated Lytton, B.C. ($102 million).

According to Christian Aid, a non-governmental organization in the U.K., the November rains in B.C. were the fifth-costliest weather event globally in 2021. No. 1? Hurricane Ida, which walloped the eastern U.S. in August.

(Ben Nelms/CBC)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • We know that human activity has released copious amounts of pollution into the natural world, but a new study has determined that when it comes to chemical pollution, we have crossed a "planetary boundary," threatening the relative stability of Earth in the last 10,000 years.

  • Berlin's regional parliament is considering a ban on cars within the area ringed by the city's S-Bahn train line, an area bigger than Manhattan. 

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved a Low Carbon Beef certification for farmers that show the greenhouse gas emissions from their beef are at least 10 per cent below an industry baseline. But critics say beef still generates far more emissions than other meats.

Draft plan calls for 30,000 shipments of nuclear waste to be moved through Ontario cities, farmland


A proposed transportation plan by Canada's nuclear industry would see up to 30,000 shipments of highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods travel through some of Ontario's most densely populated communities over four decades, starting in the 2040s.

Under the proposed plan from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), fuel rods would be shipped by road and/or rail from reactor sites and interim storage facilities in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and New Brunswick, destined for either South Bruce (near Owen Sound) or Ignace (near Thunder Bay) in Ontario.

Currently, scientists are studying the ancient bedrock below both communities to determine whether the geology is right for a deep geologic repository, a $23-billion crypt as deep as the CN Tower is tall, in which Canada could seal away its entire stockpile of nuclear waste for eons. 

The selection of a site is expected in 2023. Once chosen, the host community would start to receive up to 30,000 shipments of nuclear waste over four decades, starting in the 2040s, which translates into an average of 654 shipments per year — or almost two shipments per day.

For the rest of the province, it would mean the radioactive cargo could potentially travel along rail routes, the 400 series of highways or even city streets as the fuel rods make their way to their final resting place. 

Caitlin Burley, the NWMO's manager of transportation engagement, said "we're confident we can safely transport used nuclear fuel."

She said the likelihood of an accidental radiation release, particularly in the event of a crash, while the waste is being transported through cities or some of the province's most productive farmland depends largely on the safety of the containers in which the spent fuel rods are being transported.

Burley said the containers have been extensively tested according to international standards. Vintage films of such tests can be easily found online, in which nuclear shipping containers are dropped, immersed in water, punctured, rammed with a speeding locomotive or even set ablaze using propane and jet fuel.

"All of them occur consecutively on the same package to inflict maximum damage," she said. 

Burley said that in all of the tests, the containers successfully shielded the outside environment from nuclear radiation, and noted that in almost 60 years of transporting used nuclear fuel, there has never been an incident in which people or the environment have been harmed.

Transportation of radioactive waste is regulated by Transport Canada and the Canada Nuclear Safety Commission.

CBC News reached out to both for comment but did not receive a response.

Final approval of the plan would rest with the federal government. 

Shipments will also have a security detail, and will be monitored by satellite and in constant communication with a 24-hour command centre to ensure the radioactive material isn't captured by criminals. 

In the event a crash does happen, the NWMO has developed a plan to deal with the situation, Burley said. 

"We will be prepared. We will have the equipment and the personnel in place to respond. Everyone will know what their job is."

In an email, Bill Knoll, a resident of South Bruce and vice-president of the citizens' group Protecting Our Waterways — No Nuclear Waste, told CBC the plan "is vague on details and is more of a plan for a plan." 

He said, "This is one of the issues we have with the NWMO. Information that should be easy to arrive at is always changing."

For its part, the NWMO said the plan is vague because it is still in flux, noting the nuclear industry has yet to narrow down whether the permanent location for Canada's nuclear waste would be in South Bruce or Ignace. 

"It's not set in stone. It's actually a living document that's meant to advance conversations around transportation," Burley said. "We're really interested in what people have to say so we can incorporate it into our planning."

Colin Butler

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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