Editorial: VIU turns black into green

Vancouver Island University is betting that one of the world’s blackest fuels can be the foundation of one of its greenest energy sources. The Nanaimo campus is delving into an abandoned coal mine to provide heating and cooling for some of its buildings. The university deserves an A+ on this idea.

It’s no secret that Nanaimo sits atop old coal mines — the Wakesiah Mine lies 130 to 190 metres beneath the campus. It was abandoned in 1930 after only 12 years in operation, and when the pumps went silent, the shafts gradually filled with water.

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The water is the key. Deep underground, it rests at a constant temperature of about 11 C, warmed by the earth’s heat, which increases about .5 C for every hundred feet of depth.

Falcon Engineering, the company overseeing the project, plans to pump that water to the surface to provide heating and cooling for campus buildings.

One well will pull water out of the mine to a pumphouse, and a second well will carry it back underground, creating one of two loops. The second loop carries water from the pumphouse to the connected buildings and back to the pump, so it can be sent back down the mine.

The buildings along the second loop will use heat pumps to transfer heat from the water to the buildings in cold weather and in the other direction in hot weather.

Although the technology is cutting-edge, the concept is elegant. It’s simple, and it’s green.

The system, called geo-exchange, is also efficient. For every unit of electrical energy needed to work the heat pumps, the system provides four units of heat. That’s a profit of three clean units.

The water is constantly pushed through the system and returned to the mine, so only heat is exchanged. The water isn’t wasted.

The first phase of the project will connect to the new Health and Science Centre, which is under construction, and two other buildings. If it proves its value, other buildings will be connected in future phases. In time, it could be extended to school district or City of Nanaimo buildings.

The cost of all this is surprisingly low — $2.4 million. Just under half is coming from the federal government, with the rest provided by the university and the community. Officials hope it will pay for itself in about 18 years.

Geo-exchange is not new to VIU, as it’s already used at the Cowichan Campus and Deep Bay Marine Field Station, but pulling the heat out of a long-flooded coal mine is a fresh take for the Island.

Similar projects have been tried elsewhere. Famed coal town Springhill, N.S., has been taking heat from an old mine since 1989 to heat and cool a manufacturing building. Others are in Marywood University in Pennsylvania, Park Hills in Missouri and a couple of towns in Scotland. In the Netherlands, the community of Heerlen heats and cools 350 homes and businesses using an old coal mine.

Mines make sense because the huge reservoirs of constant-temperature water are already there. It just takes a few wells to bring that water to the surface and send it back down again.

We look to universities not only to educate young people, but also to show us better ways to the future. Vancouver Island University is doing that.

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