Going off the grid is an idea that municipalities and arena owners sometimes dream about from time to time, but not many have the courage to take that big step forward. Not so with the Town of Kapuskasing. This northern lumber town in the Canadian province of Ontario needed to replace their ageing ice plant and, at the same time, they decided to take their 40-year-old rec centre nearly off the grid in an effort to reduce their yearly energy spend — and the financial commitment needed from their taxpayers. By installing modern equipment and creating their own electricity by using cheap natural gas, the savings they were expected to achieve would cover the financing costs of the project, with a 25-year savings estimate of $4.775 million[1].

Municipalities have an obligation to reduce their operating costs. Enegy expenses are never going to get better, they’re only going to get worse. – Yves Labelle, former Chief Administrative Officer, Town of Kapuskasing

The Town of Kapuskasing had some prior experience with alternative energy sources, especially with solar (the Town of Kapuskasing is a member of CanSIA). Yves Labelle, who was the town’s Chief Administrative Officer at the time (he’s since retired) explains it was a road trip to visit a condo project that really sparked the Town’s imagination. There, geothermal/geoexchange was being used to heat and cool 72 condo units, all run by a cogeneration system. And although they weren’t completely off the grid (and neither is the Sports Palace), their electricity demand was only 10% of their entire energy needs. Labelle and his team began investigating how they could take that same idea and port it to their recreation complex. Trak International, an engineering group out of BC (who had done the engineering on the condo project and had other geothermal experience with arenas) was selected for the job.

Smart Energy System

In the fall of 2015, when the Kapuskasing Town Council gave its blessing for the Smart Energy System (SES) that Trak Internationa proposed, the annual energy costs for the Kapuskasing Regional Conference Complex (a.k.a. the “Sports Palace”) was $260K. The projected energy spend after the SES installation would see that number chopped in half – down to $130K. The Sports Palace is a true community complex with a kitchen, meeting rooms and a stage as well as a twin pad for skating and five curling sheets. One of the twin pads is used for off-ice activities from May to August, the other runs year round. The plans were made taking into consideration that in 2017, the Town would be adding an indoor swimming pool to the complex.

The proposed energy system was budgeted at $2 million (Canadian), which included a 10% contingency buffer, and would include the following:

  • 160 kW cogen
  • heat pumps and geo-exchange system to be located in the mechanical room or back lot
  • An Energy Management Control system
  • Possibly a small solar system initially, to be expanded when the swimming pool is added. This would be placed on the roof of curling rink – already designed as part of previous FIT

As to the benefits, there were several:

  • It would give the facility new energy-efficient mechanical/electrical/controls system
  • They would have superior ice-making equipment which would give them harder, better quality ice
  • The existing ammonia plant would be replaced by a system running bio-degradable, food-grade glycol
  • Software for monitoring the system and automatic controls would make it much easier to maintain and control the ice
  • Humidity problems would be eliminated
  • There would be an additional benefit of full redundancy. The facility can be used as an emergency shelter

Once the Town Council gave its approval, the project was immediately set in motion. Timelines were tight as an October 1st, 2015 order date was imperative for a projected completion date of August 1, 2016, a mere 10 months later.

The Town of Kapuskasing was about to embark on its largest retrofit project ever.

In the next installment of Going Off the Grid, I’ll look at the build itself and talk to Trak International about the project, the deadlines and any particular challenges or sweet spots that they encountered in this ambitious retrofit.

[1] Town of Kapuskasing Council Report – September 10, 2015