YVR digs deep with Geoexchange to help meet emission-reduction goals

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Crews have drilled 850 wells 152 metres down into the sand of Sea Island to tap the constant temperature that exists deep underground, which is the heart of geothermal heating and cooling.

DERRICK PENNER, Vancouver Sun, December 1, 2019

Don Ehrenholz, VP of Engineering at YVR, with pipes from the Geoexchange thermal heating system being installed at the airport. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG

Installing one of the largest Geoexchange systems in Canada is a massive investment that is crucial to Vancouver International Airport’s objective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the impressive parts of it are destined to remain unseen.

Crews have drilled 850 wells 152 metres down into the sand of Sea Island to tap the constant temperature that exists deep underground, which is the heart of geothermal heating and cooling.

At an estimated $350 million, the Geoexchange system is the single most expensive project YVR has ever taken on. CEO Craig Richmond expects to cut carbon dioxide emissions from heating and cooling by 30 to 35 per cent, compared with a baseline of 2012.

All that is visible at this point, however, is a field of white conduit pipes poking up out of the ground in neat rows where the value lot parking used to be in front of the airport’s main terminal building.

“Think of it as a gigantic radiator down underground with all these pipes either supplying the radiator with heat, or (supplying) heat back to the ground,” said Don Ehrenholz, YVR’s vice-president of engineering.

The system works, Ehrenholz said, on the principle of using the differential between the constant temperature deep underground, six to eight degrees Celsius, and the temperature at surface to either heat or cool YVR’s cavernous terminal buildings.

“So you’re using the ground as essentially a storage place for heat, if you will,” Ehrenholz said, “drawing out of that storage to heat our buildings in the winter and putting heat back into the ground during the summer.”

“As long as we balance that then it’s really good,” Ehrenholz said, “we’re never going to deplete our heat source and never going to overheat it, if we do that well.”

YVR is about a year-and-a-half into the Geoexchange project, which is a central component in a $500 million project that includes a new 2,000-stall parkade and consolidation of utilities into a central building designed to post-disaster standards.

The Geoexchange system’s processing unit will gather the water that is either heated or cooled by the geothermal wells and distribute it to heat exchangers in individual buildings through a district energy system, which will ring the terminal with a network of heavy-duty 600-millimetre diameter high-density polyethylene pipes. Completion is set for 2022.

However, the process of deciding on geothermal heating took three years of consideration and study, said Richmond, as the airport contemplated spending hundreds of millions of dollars to replace its aging heating and cooling systems.

“We talk about the ‘new terminal,’ but that was new in 1996,” Richmond said of their first major expansion. Then some of the heating systems in the old domestic departures building date back to the late 1960s.

Pipes for the Geoexchange thermal heating system on the ground level of the new parking lot under construction at YVR. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG

They estimated the cost of geothermal would come with about a 10 per cent premium to a conventional system, but “we thought that would be a good investment.”

At a time when air travel is under the microscope as a source of increasing greenhouse gas emissions while scientists warn we need to dramatically slash emissions, Richmond said it is an imperative for YVR to reduce its own.

YVR gets marks for its efforts to reduce the facility’s own emissions, according to Tom Green, a climate solutions analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.

“The more we can do to decarbonize all our energy use, the better,” Green said. “So yeah, Geoexchange is one of the technologies we see playing a role in the future.”

However, the airline industry overall is only improving its own efficiency in terms of CO2 emissions by about one to two per cent per year while total air travel is increasing at a rate of five per cent per year.

In the long run, Green said initiatives such as developing biofuels to replace kerosene jet fuel and using renewable electricity to refine those fuels will become a bigger part of the solution.

“Until then, aviation is definitely adding to the problem at a time we need to bring down (all) our emissions at seven per cent per year,” Green said.

President and CEO of Vancouver Airport Authority Craig Richmond. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG

Comparatively speaking, Richmond said air transportation only accounts for four per cent of global CO2 emissions, but “the only way (growth) will be acceptable is if we can reduce our effects.”

In its 2018 sustainability report, YVR estimated that it had reduced emissions from terminal operations by 11 per cent compared with 2012, but won’t meet its goal of cutting them one third by 2020 until the Geoexchange system is operational in 2022.

YVR’s immediate CO2 emissions added up to 9,355 tonnes in 2018, but with aircraft takeoffs and landings and passenger vehicle traffic added in, the report estimated total emissions at more than 300,000 tonnes.

Richmond said YVR is trying to get at that bigger issue by exploring how to set up a supply chain to source and provide aviation biofuels to its airline customers.

“The way we look at it is we had better have our own house in order if we’re going to get all the other companies and airlines on Sea Island to do their part,” Richmond said.