Going Deep for Change


Peak oil is often thought of as a global crisis. The theory posits that the world will reach or has reached a peak in its oil reserves; therefore, while oil consumption is increasing globally, the supply is decreasing. It is said that alternative sources of energy must be found or there will be serious consequences for all people and the Earth. CleanEnergy Developments Corp. promotes and provides access to alternative energy, doing its part to change the world.

It is a little known fact that there have always been natural sources of energy. This energy comes in three major forms: geothermal (from the ground), aqua-thermal (from water), and solar-thermal (from the sun). CleanEnergy integrates these geo-exchange systems to provide energy to commercial, residential, and institutional markets. Business in Focus spoke with Robert van Duynhoven, President of CleanEnergy, about the history of the company and the future of energy.

Established over 10 years ago, CleanEnergy was founded by a group of business people and environmentally concerned engineers. Three companies came together to incorporate the design of sustainable thermal energy systems, drilling of geothermal ground loops and the integration of the ground loops. This original team was supported by a group of investors who recognized the opportunity in this venture.

The founders of CleanEnergy were looking to promote the underutilized geo-exchange technology of geothermal heating and cooling. While prevalent in Europe, the technology had not yet reached popularity in North America. A decade ago, gas and oil prices were rising fast. CleanEnergy was set to meet high demand from consumers looking to save money and to protect the environment.

Robert explains that customers are often motivated by the concept of reducing their impact on the environment, but long-term efficiency and cost savings can be even more attractive. “It can be challenging to justify the investment based on the impact on the environment alone,” he notes. “Regardless, it is an energy efficiency technology that reduces your energy needs and saves you money.” Before CleanEnergy was established, the geothermal market was underserved and highly fragmented. At the time geothermal projects were prohibitively expensive, as multiple contractors were needed to execute a project. Multiple players meant inefficiencies due to inadequate communication and other issues.

Robert likens the significance of all parties working together on a geothermal project to the legs of a stool: “[It] needs to be designed in concert to give you the best performing system. This is hard to do with different companies coming in to do the work, but from the same source it’s much easier.” CleanEnergy has found the best approach to geothermal development projects, clearing out inefficiencies to ensure client satisfaction.

The company develops technologies that are both innovative and intuitive. Geothermal technology interfaces with the ground, capturing heat in order to increase temperatures in a building. It rejects heat to the ground in order to cool a building. Water and solar power are harnessed for aqua-thermal and solar-thermal projects. CleanEnergy approaches each project differently, designing an alternative energy system that may integrate one or more of these technologies.

This is a complex process that many customers trust in the hands of the experts. Clients can rest assured that CleanEnergy projects will result in economical and environmentally friendly buildings, with no fossil fuels burned and therefore no carbon emissions. “That is important these days as we question the climate,” explains Robert. There are increasingly widespread concerns about the environmental impact of carbon emissions, but, he says, “It is a hard sell unless you are an environmentalist.”

Robert understands the significance of alternative energy technologies for broader markets outside of those who may be “sold” on climate change. “We have to sell this technology based on the return on investment,” he says. “The return to the client is energy and maintenance cost savings over a period of time to offset the incremental investment.”

The energy savings are guaranteed, but how much money clients will save depends on energy prices such as those for natural gas or electricity. Clients will see savings over the long term, though the unpredictable costs of gas, oil and electricity can impact the overall return on investment. “Due to peak oil we have to believe that prices are going up,” Robert explains. “There may be significant taxes imposed on those that are burning oil or natural gas, as opposed to those who have a cleaner way of heating and cooling buildings.” CleanEnergy strives to create options for clients to improve efficiencies of personal and commercial energy use. The company is founded on a clear vision, knowing that demand for alternative energies will only increase with rising fossil fuel prices and environmental concerns.

The company’s leading edge technology is not without competition; there is significant potential in the growing market. “In Canada alone, based on criteria we have identified, [geothermal heating and cooling systems are] a billion dollar marketplace,” explains Robert, “just based on the size of the construction and retrofit potential for existing systems. The competition is not so much other companies promoting geo or aqua-thermal systems, but rather other utilities selling natural gas, oil, propane or electricity.”

CleanEnergy is trying to change the way people think about heating and cooling so that it is considered necessary infrastructure on par with the gas lines that run through buildings. Along with other utility and energy companies, consumers subsidize Enbridge to put gas line infrastructure in the ground. Consumers absorb additional fees in their utility bills to cover these costs. According to CleanEnergy, it is reasonable to also subsidize geothermal heating and cooling systems. Once established, the ground loop geo-exchange system lasts for 50 to 100 years. This would therefore be an affordable option for consumers, who could then pay for the infrastructure over a long period of time.

CleanEnergy has been working with Ryerson University for the past three years as an industrial partner. The company is guiding the institution in collaboration with its research and development department, finding strategic and creative ways to maximize geothermal systems efficiency. A software tool to design the optimum hybrid system is under development, integrating the three thermal technology solutions with traditional heating and cooling methods such as gas furnaces and air conditioning. The design of the energy system will be optimized considering energy load, cost of energy and return on investment. This five-year project will be completed within the next two years with a commercially viable software utility.

The Ryerson University project has catapulted CleanEnergy into advanced development of software tools to produce innovative technologies and design approaches, and the company is learning from past projects. For example, CleanEnergy has had considerable success in schools in British Colombia, using horizontal drilling technologies to install geothermal ground loops under buildings, parks and fields without disturbing the surface. This approach can be refined further, according to Robert. “It’s been cost competitive,” he says, “but the energy model is still simplistic, so we need to develop tools to model the thermal efficiency of the design. Ryerson is helping us to evaluate that approach and to improve our accuracy and efficiencies in terms of the thermal design.”

CleanEnergy has also worked with WestJet consulting team. The team designed a geo-exchange system with pipes within foundation elements of the WestJet building at the Calgary airport. CleanEnergy recently finished installing the largest geothermal system in Canada at the Calgary airport, consisting of 588 bore holes to a depth of approximately 500 feet deep. A total of 400 kilometres of geothermal piping lies underneath the new terminal building and piers buildings. “We just finished our portion of that project,” shares Robert. “So far it’s been a very successful installation. It is providing about one third of the heating and cooling requirements [at the airport]. It’s an ideal application because it’s a 24/7 operation; it’s continually heating and cooling. The investment on geothermal technology is properly leveraged the more you use these systems.”

Always looking to innovate, CleanEnergy is working on test systems with other companies in an attempt to integrate multiple thermal energy technologies. These collaborations should produce optimum holistic solutions to alternative energy infrastructure development. In partnership with an American company, CleanEnergy is currently working on a “smart” thermal load balancing system design. This system will better manage energy load over time, between the ground loop, the building and the atmosphere by moving heat to where it is most valued.

Water is a significant source of energy that has been leveraged by the company in several projects. “In Toronto, we have the existing deep lake water cooling system by Enwave,” Robert explains. “It is a great example of aqua-thermal technology, taking cold water deep from Lake Ontario and using that to cool buildings.” The intuitive, innovative approach to design is obvious and CleanEnergy is always looking ahead. “We are exploring opportunities wherever there is water,” Robert continues. For example, CleanEnergy is looking at redesigning storm retention ponds to serve as heating and cooling systems for buildings.

The residential sector is actually more challenging to service than larger commercial projects like airports or hospitals. CleanEnergy’s technology works best with these larger infrastructure projects because the system will pay for itself in a reasonable period of time and add value to the building. Residential applications will see payback within 10 or 20 years, but this investment can be difficult for consumers. Residential projects are nonetheless becoming more popular based on consumers’ own environmental concerns.

The technologies are not yet popular enough to indicate market value increases. However, Robert indicates that these technologies definitely add value. “If you have a heating and cooling system that uses less energy and costs less to operate, the building should be worth more,” he says. “That’s the basic premise.” Over time, this value will be quantified. CleanEnergy’s approach of continuous innovation will ensure that geo-exchange technologies will become increasingly appealing for individual consumers.

“With the progress we are making on improving the efficiency on larger commercial and institutional ground loops, both geothermal and aqua-thermal,” Robert notes, “we can implement these same benefits on smaller residential systems as well.” The potential is obvious. Robert foresees change across the board, with commercial and residential markets moving from oil and gas dependency to alternative, clean energy sources. “It will come to a point where we have achieved efficiencies where it will be more of a standard then an upgrade.”

With continued study and experimentation, CleanEnergy will bring these important technologies to the world at a time when they are most needed. Its leading design and development will continue to create positive changes in the infrastructure sector, the environment, and the minds of consumers.

September 25, 2017, 4:41 PM EDT

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