Geothermal: A hidden energy

Laura Hamstra, sustainability coordinator at Durham College. Photo credit: Dakota Evans


Laura Hamstra, the Sustainability Coordinator for DC, first experienced renewable energy on a family trip when she was a child. This is when she began to think about how critical of an impact energy consumption can have on the climate.

“When I was ten-years-old, I took a trip with my family to Germany and I saw a wind turbine for the first time, in person. Germany was very advanced when it came to that,” said Hamstra, who has since found herself drawn to solutions for climate change.

Geothermal has been identified as an important technology to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Recent reports from the Canadian Greenbuilding Council have identified geothermal as one of the key technologies to be implemented for heating and cooling built environments.

“A very small amount of electricity is required to do the heat transfer,” said Sarah Dehler, communications and sustainability specialist for Siemens, the largest industrial manufacturing company in Europe with a branch office in Ottawa. “It is a very efficient technology.”

Many students from Oshawa’s Durham College (DC) and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) have walked to the library, attended frosh week events or sat and enjoyed time with friends at The Polonsky Commons.

However, right under the feet of those students is something really special. UOIT is using renewable energy known as geothermal to conserve and reuse heat which comes from the earth.

UOIT has been using a 2,000-ton geothermal energy system, which has been operating since 2004, to heat their buildings during the cold weather and provide cooling during the warmer months.

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The Business and IT building (UB) at UOIT is heated and cooled by The Polonksy Commons geothermal field. Photo credit: Dakota Evans

“I had no idea, that’s actually really cool,” says Crystal Slappendel, a third-year accounting major at UOIT.

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Crystal Slappendel, a third-year accounting major at UOIT. Photo credit: Dakota Evans

Durham College’s north Oshawa campus will join UOIT and DC’s Whitby campus by using geothermal this spring.

Doug Crossman, who has been director of facilities management at DC and UOIT since 2005, is at the forefront of the geothermal renovations at DC Oshawa.

“Durham College’s Whitby Campus has also been using the geothermal method on their buildings for around eight to nine years,” said Crossman.

The Simcoe Geothermal Field, which will sit where the old Simcoe Building once sat on the north campus, will look and work similar to UOIT’s but on a smaller scale.

“We [DC] have gone after significant funding which would allow us [DC] to install geothermal. The capital upfront and cost of the system at the start is higher but the payback and the operating costs are lower,” said Crossman.

On March 12, 2018, DC announced $14.7 million for funding by the province’s Greenhouse Gas Campus Retrofits Program. DC’s geothermal field will use $9.1 million while another $1.45 million will go into completing upgrades on existing facilities.

The announcement was part of Ontario’s five-year Climate Change Action Plan from 2016 to 2020.

In the long run, DC will pay less for the energy needed, said Crossman.

DC’s north campus will be using one of three types of Underground Thermal Energy Storage (UTES) known as the Borehole Thermal Energy Storage (BTES) consisting of a series of six-inch drilled holes 600 feet down.

“These boreholes are filled with piping inserted, known as U-tubing, which goes all the way each way to discharge heat into the ground and pull heat from the ground,” said Crossman.

According to DC’s Green Team newsletter, the BTES systems work by having energy stored underneath the ground to be used when needed.

Thermal energy will be deposited into the ground during the summer months to cool the buildings and during the winter months, it will be taken from the ground to provide warmth.

The north Oshawa campus BTES system will be large-scale and at the beginning, will only provide energy to the Gordon Willey Building.

The Simcoe Geothermal Field will be the foundation for DC’s brand new Innovation Centre, a new home for experiential learning on campus.

Both the Simcoe Geothermal Field and the Innovation Centre share the primary contractor Siemens, said Crossman.

“The Innovation Centre will provide a first-hand look at the equipment supporting borehole field and the transfer of thermal energy from the ground to the building,” said Dehler. “It’s important that students who will be working in these energy-related fields are educated.”

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Sarah Dehler, who has worked with Siemens for five and a half years beside her colleague Jeffery Phillips at Durham College’s career fair on Feb. 5 Photo credit: Courtesy of Sarah Dehler

Currently, there are two groups meeting to decide how to implement the Innovation Centre space into classrooms.

“Energy Innovation Centre connecting Teaching and Learning (EICTL) is a group of academic leaders from across the academic institution who are steering how the space will be used by academics,” said Dehler, who has worked in the sustainability field for 12 years.

Working alongside EICTL is a subcommittee comprised of about five faculty members, with individuals from the School of Skilled Trades, Apprenticeship & Renewable Technology (START), Science & Engineering Technology (SET) and Business, IT & Management (BTM).

“At this moment it’s way too early to say – we (faculty) have only just started to see what it has to offer – it may affect some course material next semester,” says Philip Jarvis, a member on the subcommittee, and a professor in the school of Science & Engineering Technology.

As a college, with an outcomes-based curriculum, DC focusses on hands-on learning and the Innovation Centre is yet another example.

“At DC, we live by the words ‘the student experience comes first’,” said Hamstra. “Any opportunity to provide students with experiential learning and first-hand exposure to emerging technologies is a benefit to the students and the quality of DC graduates entering the workforce.”

The Innovation Centre will allow students to observe how the equipment takes energy from the ground using TV screens.

The students will also be able to watch informative videos on how the process of heat transfer works and how the geothermal renovation is contributing to campus sustainability.

“The percentage of our greenhouse gas emissions that come from the built environment is significant and we as a society need to figure out how to decarbonize the heating and cooling of our buildings,” said Dehler. “Geothermal is an underutilized resource.”

Like The Polonksy Commons, DC’s geothermal field will offer a new green space on campus for anyone on campus.

“The most immediate benefit of using geothermal energy at DC will be a reduction in our [DC’s] carbon footprint. I’m also excited to see the curriculum that will be developed to take full advantage of the Innovation Centre. Plus, a new green space is being designed on the field itself, which will be a great place to spend time during warmer weather,” said Hamstra.