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Geothermal project heats up in Timmins (01/04)

Timmins' three-year effort to study the commercial and economic merits behind using re-circulated mine water to heat and cool buildings will likely enter a pilot project phase sometime in early January 2004.
Timmins' three-year effort to study the commercial and economic merits behind using re-circulated mine water to heat and cool buildings will likely enter a pilot project phase sometime in early January 2004.

The Shania Twain Centre, one of the city's main tourist attractions, is being considered as a candidate site in investigating the geo-thermal energy potential tapped from the former Hollinger gold mine.

Though project managers held rosy visions of heating public buildings throughout Timmins with water pumped from the former shaft, the economics of the plan has taken on a smaller scale for now, says Mark Jensen, the city's director of community development. Jenson is overseeing the effort along with project partners, Porcupine Joint Venture (formerly Kinross Gold Corp).

Some pre-feasibility work conducted last summer to extend the technology to the McIntyre Arena and to the Timmins and District Hospital revealed there were tremendous energy savings in both heating and cooling the facilities. But the cost to retrofit the steam-based arena heating system to accommodate geothermal energy was too exorbitant and the north-end hospital was considered too far from the heat source to run infrastructure.

"The technology is very capital intensive and we were unable to find an economical project for the hospital," says Jensen.

So their efforts are re-focussing on the new Shania Twain Centre, which sits virtually on top of the former mine site. Project planners say the in-floor heating system is ideal for conversion to harness geothermal energy.

Using a simple heat exchange system, the plan is to use the flooded, abandoned Hollinger mine as a giant reservoir. It would be set up in a closed-loop system. A well will be drilled, and water would be pumped from a depth of about 200 metres to 250 metres up to an electric heat pump where the temperature would be boosted for heating purposes. The water would then be re-circulated back into the shaft.

The temperature in the mineshaft is estimated between 12 degrees Celcius to 13 degrees Celcius. In the summer, for cooling purposes, water would be extracted from shallower levels.

Bard Skagestad, a senior mechanical engineer with the city's consulting firm FVB Energy Inc. of Edmonton, is preparing the pre-feasibility report due out in mid-January, and pegs the estimated capital costs to run infrastructure into the Shania Twain Centre at between $200,000 and $250,000.

Skagestad says his upcoming report will review the concept for the prototype project, examining all aspects of the capital costs and the displaced energy when going from natural gas to geothermal.

There are no estimates on how much water is stored in the mine and they have no direct calculation on its maximum energy potential.

One other similar venture has proven successful in Springhill, N.S. Water from abandoned coal mine workings is used to heat and cool buildings in an industrial park. In Nova Scotia, by converting from natural gas to geothermal heating, they claim to save more than 30 per cent on their gas bill.

"We know we are going to save on most of the gas we displace, but it's not free to drive these heat pumps," says Skagestad. "We're replacing gas with a portion of geothermal energy, but need a certain amount of electricity."

What drives the economics of these types of projects is the commodity price "sparks spread" between the unit cost of energy between electricity and natural gas, he says.

A more detailed study will have to come later with some real estimates of its total potential to apply this technology to multiple buildings around town. So far, combined government support for the project has amounted to about $60,000.

Should the study show promising results with favourable economics, a trip to Springhill to examine their system in detail and tap into their experience is likely in order, he says.

Jensen suspects council will accept the report if it comes out favourable, and be ready to move into a pilot project phase to measure how much the city will save.

He is also hopeful the private sector in Timmins will eventually get on board with some investment dollars.

"If we can get this particular site under a pilot project, and show that it can work hopefully, it will encourage some private investment in the community," Jensen says.