Steam plant issues (carbon, water, biofuel): Proposed 19 & 20 storey rezoning at Central Steam Site, 720 Beatty Street

Steam Energy Plant Beatty

(Update: Council approved the staff recommendation as-is, on July 8. We will report separately. Going low-carbon is a great thing, but there are MANY issues about this whole deal. See “Apartment, office buildings proposed at Central Steam plant next to B.C. Place” – Carlito Pablo, Georgia Straight,8-July-2015. Excerpts at bottom here.)

City staff are recommending that our municipal government, through City Council, “indicate its willingness to consider a rezoning application from Creative Energy for the Central Steam site” (720 Beatty Street).

This is for a residential tower 20 storeys high, and an office tower 18 or 19 storeys high, to be built above a steam plant. The topic goes to City Council today (agenda, docs here – Agenda 2. Issues Report – Proposed Rezoning – Central Steam Site, 720 Beatty Street).

However, there appear to be gaps in the information being considered, and a lack of conditions being explicitly imposed before the wheels even start to turn on a rezoning. There seem to be a lot of promises and implicit assumptions. A decision by Council at this time may be premature. If done poorly, here is what the citizens of Vancouver might end up with:

  • being saddled with a multi-generational commitment to an expanded district-heating infrastructure, though there appears to be no detailed, independent, quantitative analysis showing how Central Steam will meet carbon emission reduction targets of Vancouver’s Greenest City aspirations
  • a heating system that becomes the city’s top consumer of water, even while future water supplies of the city become increasingly vulnerable to climate change
  • significant concessions granted to a developer, rezoning against current policy restricting residential construction, and two towers built, even while the total long-term sustainability of the “biofuel” steam system remains unsure and unjustified.

The points above and below are based on many questions and assumptions, of necessity, as they do not appear to have been properly addressed in the 15-page staff report to Council. Separately, today we received an initial response from Jag Sandhu, Corporate Communications at the City (excerpts below, at bottom).

Gaps in information

  1. Carbon: Total net lifecycle carbon emissions and savings from the project
  2. Biofuels: Proposed biofuels
  3. Water: How risky is it for the City to depend so heavily on the water supply for this plant

The proponent is seeking a rezoning to permit one tower 20 storeys and one 18 or 19 stories high, above a steam plant, which is proposed to do a fuel switch to “low-carbon” biofuel.


It appears there has been no analysis of the quantitative aspects of carbon savings. Based on assumptions, we estimate the total carbon emissions from concrete and fossil fuels until building occupancy to be 86 million kg carbon for the twenty-storey tower and 83 million kg carbon for a nineteen-storey tower. How long will it take for a biofuel steam plant to compensate for these emissions? This is just one example of the discussion the City should be having BEFORE even indicating an interest in moving ahead to a rezoning application.


What “biofuels” are proposed to be used at this site, how sustainable will they be decades ahead, and are they really eco-friendly? Where is the quantitative analysis? Risk analysis? If the material is expected to be wood chips, where will them come from? None of the materials or media on this project appear to have covered these questions.

A pillar of the proposed project merits are a reduction in emissions by fuel switching to low-carbon fuels. How, according to media, will the plant reduce, by 90 per cent, Creative Energy’s estimated 70,000 tonnes of annual greenhouse gas emissions? What information in this regard has the City considered in making this recommendation to Council? Anyone interested in climate change and the environment would likely be interested in knowing the numbers — what sources, what mix, sustainability of supply, etc.


This steam plant was the third largest consumer of water in Vancouver in 2007. Did staff consider projected future water consumption at this plant in the event of a full build-out of the district heating system? The West Coast of North America is in the grips of a drought in 2015. Water levels in the Metro Vancouver reservoirs are already at alarmingly low levels.

Pink line is trend line by CityHallWatch for July to November 2015

Water storage status in Metro Vancouver. Pink is trend line of water supply drawn by CityHallWatch for July to November 2015 if we get no major rainfall

According to “Biggest water users in Vancouver” (Vancouver Sun, 23-June-2008) these were the top three water consumers in Vancouver in 2007: Molson Canada brewery on Burrard Street (1,052,286 cubic metres of water), Rogers Sugar Ltd. refinery on Burrard Inlet ranked (928,350), and Central Heat Distribution Ltd. on Beatty (588,423 cubic metres).

How does this steam plant currently rank in 2015? With proposed expansion of the district heating in Vancouver, the City should probably create water consumption scenarios for the next several decades, considering future water stress resulting from climate change.


From experience, many Vancouver residents know that a project rarely stops once the wheels start to turn. No public hearing in the past several years has resulted in a rejection or significant changes to the application.

This project is being promoted by Creative Energy as a major means to achieve the City’s Greenest City 2020 objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, many details have not been presented. It should be up to the proponent to fill in the blanks before the municipal government even starts to give an indication that this project is going to be go ahead to a rezoning and public hearing.

It appears this proposal is far too underdeveloped, premature for Council consideration to start the rezoning process.

Many other concerns need to be addressed. For example:

If the main “biofuels” being considered are wood chips, how will the proponent ship wood chips to Vancouver? By truck or rail? Where will they store the fuel feedstock? What are the emissions compared to natural gas? Can they produce enough heat to such a large part of the downtown? Is burning waste wood for heat alone really a very low-carbon use? What about pollution concerns? How about the total costs of such a facility, including hogging, pelleting, trucking, storage in silos, gasification, curtailment and cleanup of effluent, etc.


Responses from Jag Sandhu, Corporate Communications at the City, on 8-July-2015 – in italics.

INFORMATION ABOUT PROPOSED FUELS: The conversion of the Downtown steam system to a low carbon energy source was identified as a high priority in the City’s Neighbourhood Energy Strategy (as approved by Council October 2012). The target 70,000 tonnes per year of GHG emissions reduction was based on (1) an existing steam system that currently generates approximately 100,000 tonnes GHG emissions per year; and (2) a conservative assumption based on industry practices that 70% of the total energy supply could come from a low carbon energy source.

As part of the Neighbourhood Energy Strategy, Council also approved the Energy Centre Guidelines, which set compliance criteria for projects like the steam system conversion. These criteria cover various aspects of the project including GHG emissions, air quality, neighbourhood fit, sustainability of fuel sources and neighbourhood fit.
Creative Energy is currently undertaking a feasibility study and business planning exercise to further the conversion of the steam system that they own. It is recommended that any technical questions related to this project be directed to Creative Energy.

INFORMATION ABOUT WATER CONSUMPTION PROJECTIONS: Expansions of this system into new areas, such as Northeast False Creek, will use a hot water distribution platform instead of steam. These are closed loop systems (i.e. all the hot water that leaves the plant to the customer returns back to the plant for re-heating) that do not result in an increase in water consumption.






Applications to BC Utilities Commission

City letter of Sept. 2013 to Creative Energy mentions low carbon energy sources.

Link at #38 on page 13 mentions that Creative Energy may possibly switch fuels. also look at #39 on this link.
“Creative Energy notes the limited supply options for the steam system, the feasibility work currently underway regarding a possible fuel switch (which is a large and complex project) ”



Apartment, office buildings proposed at Central Steam plant next to B.C. Place” – Carlito Pablo, Georgia Straight,8-July-2015. Excerpts:

Green councillor Adriane Carr cast the sole dissenting vote on a staff recommendation to indicate that council is willing to consider a rezoning application for the utility.

We had a choice about who would operate the district energy. And it could have been the city,” Carr said.

[CHW note: Clr George Affleck added concern that with this proposal — creating a mini-monopoly in the core business district, giving one developer absolute control of the district heating system.]

Carr added that had the city operated the utility, it could have had the opportunity to switch to a low-carbon fuel without having to rezone the site.

The Green councillor also said that there was no consideration before that if Creative Energy changes its fuel supply, the move would have to be supported by a rezoning of the plant site.

[CHW note: Creative Energy is owned by Ian Gillespie, also CEO of Westbank Projects Corp., which City Council has favoured in MANY major rezonings around the city.]

Carr likewise pointed out that there is no clarity about the new technology that will be used to do away with the plant’s current GHG emissions.

[CHW note: It’s true, look at the documents and there is very little detail about the source of the proposed “biofuel” other than mention of “waste wood.” We believe a high level of independent public scrutiny is need of this entire deal.]

She emphasized that she agrees with the concept of reducing carbon emissions.

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