Montreal neighbours build community, and climate resilience, through geothermal energy

Geoexchange systems are most popular in large building projects, but could they be a solution for single-family homes as well?
Lauzon and So's apartments - Duncan McLachlan
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What exactly can be done to make a community, bit by bit, more resilient and responsive to the global ecological collapse that we are living through?

Francine Lauzon, a retired real estate agent who grew up in and around Montreal, has an idea.

“It has to be everybody together,” she says. She bought a hybrid car in 2003. She recycles diligently. She keeps her showers short. She tells me proudly that she knocks on car doors when the engine has been left running, acknowledging but shrugging off that this behaviour might be annoying.

Recently Lauzon was involved in a geothermal project to provide heating and air conditioning for seven apartments in Montreal, including her own. I met with her and Alexandre Courchesne, an engineer who helped on the project and works at Polytechnique Montreal, to learn about it and understand the possibilities of geoexchange — the term used for geothermal heating and cooling systems.

We sit down to talk in her kitchen, a space accented by shiny wooden floors and white walls. Water drips from the kitchen tap into an orchid sitting in the sink as Lauzon offers me coffee. Making it, she tells me, only requires the press of a button.

Lauzon and Courchesne in Lauzon's kitchen
Duncan McLachlan

A green alley from the future

Montreal has long encouraged the creation of ruelle verte, or green alleyways, in the ubiquitous alleys that run parallel to the city’s streets. Organized and maintained by the neighbourhood, the addition of planters or in some cases the digging up of asphalt to lay flower beds helps to create a space for play and neighbourhood events.

In 2016, some friends of Courchesne’s were talking with their neighbours about their ruelle verte. They began thinking about how to do more in their alley.

Already, they shared toys, equipment, and tools and held parties together. What if, they asked, they could share some infrastructure as well?

Eventually Solon, a newly formed non-profit for social and ecological transition, put out a call for project applications from neighbourhood groups. A cooperative called Celsius, which was established by residents in Lauzon’s neighbourhood in 2019, was successful. The ruelle verte connected to Lauzon’s home was to be a showcase for the possibilities of geoexchange.

Digging began at the end of March 2021. It started in the backyard of Hong So, one of Lauzon’s neighbours. Their two buildings sit side by side, separated by a small gap, on a tree-lined street in Rosemont. The neighbourhood is quiet, tidy, pretty and family oriented. There’s a nearby cinema and park, and a trendy cafe on the corner (its Instagram account says that it has “wabi sabi vibes”).

Lauzon moved here 22 years ago. She owns her ground-floor apartment, and the four apartments above her (which she rents out). So owns the two units in his building, which are currently being renovated.

The geoexchange system provides heating and cooling to all seven units.

How it works

There are different kinds of geothermal energy.

High-temperature geothermal, which can produce electricity, is often located in areas of volcanic activity — it requires underground temperatures of at least 150 C.

Under So’s backyard, and throughout Quebec, the average earth temperature is around 10 C. Here, low-temperature geothermal can be used. This provides heat (for heating and hot water) and cooling (for air conditioning).

To produce heat during winter, the higher temperature in the ground relative to the temperature above is used as a source. The heat is transferred up through pipes to homes. To produce cooling during summer, the lower temperature in the ground relative to the temperature above is used as a sink: heat is removed from the inside of homes and piped into the ground.

A view from Lauzon's basement of the pipes entering the base of the chimney
Duncan McLachlan

In Lauzon’s case, they dug eight 150-foot holes that spiral out at different angles. After facing difficulties obtaining permission from the city and the borough of Rosemont-Petite-Patrie to construct the project in the alley, they moved it to So’s backyard.

There’s nothing new about geoexchange. Examples of it can be found throughout Canada from the last 15 or so years. Lauzon says that, for residential projects, it has tended to happen in new, single family homes in the countryside where there was lots of land and where the design could be optimized for the efficient use of geothermal.

What makes Lauzon’s project more novel is that it involves retrofitting multiple existing homes within a densely populated area and, consequently, working within the constraints of the existing architecture.

The holes in So’s backyard are connected with pipes to pumping stations on So’s and Lauzon’s properties. Lauzon’s pumping station is in her basement. From there, the heat is piped up through the chimney into the rooms and apartments above.

Is it worth it?

Étienne St-Cyr is a supervisor who works on energy projects for Hydro-Québec. The provincial utility supports the use of geoexchange in larger-scale projects — St-Cyr estimates that about 50 per cent of subsidies offered through their energy efficiency programs go to geoexchange.

But “right now geothermal energy for very small dwellings are not a good match,” he says.

Geothermal energy, according to St-Cyr, is not as powerful as baseboard heating so “you need to build around that decision.” For individual dwellings, Hydro Quebec instead promotes the use of air source heat pumps, which use the outdoor air as a source for thermal energy in colder months, and as a sink for air conditioning in hotter months. The utility is more interested in assisting the development of geoexchange systems in new and larger buildings.

For instance, Zibi, a development project straddling Gatineau and Ottawa, uses a geoexchange system to provide district heating, relying in part on the heat produced from the Kruger paper plant. In Mirabel, Clé-des-Champs primary school has been converted to use geoexchange as part of Project Alliance, an initiative involving Hydro Quebec and Polytechnique Montreal to test a new form of geoexchange technology. Courchesne, in his role at Polytechnique Montreal, is also involved in that project.

Last June, the Celsius geoexchange system, which cost around $120,000, started operating. Celsius relied on grants from a range of sources, including the borough and the Canadian government’s Investment Readiness Program, which, according to its website, “supports social purpose organizations as they contribute to solving pressing social, cultural and environmental challenges across Canada.”

Lauzon and So have 15-year agreements with Celsius to buy the geoexchange system over time. They will then own it and continue to pay a fee to Celsius for the administration and maintenance of the system.

Well digging in So's back yard
Francine Lauzon

FRAPRU, a tenants’ rights organization based in Montreal, is concerned that projects like these will burden tenants with rent increases.

“These types of renovations could be used to abusively increase the price of rents or to force tenants to leave their apartment to rent it to tenants that will be interested and could afford (to pay) more,” says Catherine Lussier of FRAPRU. Quebec needs “a global vision for fighting climate change,” one that ensures low-income tenants are not removed from their homes in order to make neighbourhoods greener.

Vincent Pelletier is one of the tenants in Lauzon’s building. He’s been there, in his two-bedroom apartment, for almost five years. He lives with his girlfriend and works as a kinesiologist at the CLSC (local community health centre) in Parc Extension, a nearby neighbourhood.

“There was absolutely no changes in the relationship with the tenant and owner” due to the Celsius project, he says, adding that he has known Lauzon since he was eight or nine.

The geoexchange system has reduced his electricity bill by 20 to 30 per cent, he says. Balance that against a rent increase of about $30 as a contribution for the system and he estimates that he has saved about 5 to 10 per cent on his total heating and cooling bill. For Pelletier, the geoexchange offers more of “a support system.” In the summer, he also uses his own air conditioning. And in the winter, he continues to use the baseboard heating. He hasn’t experienced any problems but notes that other tenants have (such as the heating from the geoexchange not being strong enough).

Lauzon’s home, like 81 per cent of homes in Quebec, was heated solely using electricity before the geoexchange system was built. According to the Canada Energy Regulator, 98 per cent of Quebec’s electricity supply in 2017 came from renewable energy (90 per cent from hydroelectricity). Still, Énergir, the largest natural gas company in Quebec, states on its website that nearly 140,000 homes in the province use natural gas. In Lauzon’s case, moving to the geoexchange system meant, in broad terms, replacing one renewable source (hydro) with another (geothermal).

Lauzon says that using geothermal can take some pressure off Quebec’s hydro supply and free it up for use in other places (for example, in Ontario or the United States). Despite the strength of Quebec’s renewable electricity supply, Énergir and Hydro-Québec recently announced a partnership to promote the dual use of electricity and natural gas to heat homes. In cold winter months, when energy demands are high, natural gas would be used in addition to electricity in order to reduce pressure on the grid.

But not all renewable energy consumption has the same impact. Ordinary air conditioning systems, Courchesne points out, pump hot air from inside to outside, making the outside air temperature hotter and contributing to the heat island effect — where an urban area is significantly hotter than surrounding rural areas. That makes living in cities, particularly for those without access to air conditioning, harder and more dangerous. Geoexchange bottles that heat into the ground.

Courchesne, in agreement with Hydro Quebec, would like to see geoexchange systems in larger projects that could include churches, schools, and businesses as well as homes. Then, as in Zibi, some of those sites could be used as sources of thermal energy as well as sinks. Lauzon supports scaling the project up but also believes what Celsius has done can simply be reproduced in other places. She says that still in Quebec “there are some very old systems that are still in use with oil and with gas.”

“We have to have governments and municipalities think outside the box now,” she says. “This is why this is done, so they can show that this is feasible.”

Nataša Zupancic is a community organizer and member of Green13, a climate and environmental organization of residents who live in Toronto’s 13th Ward. After dealing with health issues and getting laid off from her job in market research in 2010, she realized she needed “more balance” in her life. Working in the community sector on environmental projects offered her a greater sense of “harmony.”

“It felt like you were working on something bigger, weaving that network that makes the village.” Zupancic was involved in a project between 2015 and 2018 to build a geoexchange system. Difficulties in receiving federal and municipal funding ultimately scuttled the project, but she feels newly optimistic about the possibilities of geoexchange. “A combination of [energy] sources” — such as geothermal, solar and hydro — “would probably be the best solution.”

Every year, there is a new technology, a new gadget, a new must-have that will save our lives, our community, our planet. Sometimes those technologies seem to be simply a distraction, something to offer some peace of mind while the world falls apart.

What seems different with the Celsius project is the community-building ethic that underpins it. This project started when neighbours, standing around in their alleyway, decided they wanted to share more together. For Lauzon, who speaks with an optimism and zeal often associated with early adopters of green technology, the Celsius project presents an instruction manual on how to make larger community geoexchange projects and, most importantly, how to change the energy use of not just one home, but many, by connecting residents committed to creating a greener and healthier neighbourhood.

In Lauzon’s kitchen is a wall decorated with sculptures of suns. Some have faces on them, painted in yellows and reds; others have mirrors.

“I just like suns,” Lauzon says. Then she adds, “The suns and the hearts are, for me, symbols that I like.”

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