The Energy Services Acquisition Program (ESAP) heats and cools 80 government buildings in Ottawa, Ontario, and Gatineau, Quebec — including the Parliament Buildings — using steam produced in plants that burn natural gas. PCL and its partners have teamed up to modernize the district energy system, which means the plants will use more efficient equipment to produce low-temperature hot water instead of steam. This can be done with fewer fossil fuels or with cleaner energy sources. However, with 14 kilometers of underground pipe connecting those buildings to five central plants in two provinces, modernization is a massive undertaking.

But the payoff will also be massive. When all is said and done, modernizing the ESAP will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 92%. The project dovetails with PCL’s priorities of using sustainable practices to build better futures for communities.

A venture of this scale and environmental significance is a daunting task for the team, but it’s also exciting to be a part of.

“When we started the program and I was shamelessly trying to recruit people within our district to come on to the program, I used to say that, if you like anything about architecture, building or engineering, it’s in the ESAP program,” says project director, Tony Cook.

Along with the converted heating plants, PCL is also installing electric chillers to cool the water circulating in the buildings during the summer and further reduce emissions.

While the emission reductions are remarkable, Cook hopes most of the project won’t be noticeable. Many of the plants are located near national landmarks like the Supreme Court of Canada and need to blend in with the surrounding architecture. Some are partially recessed into the ground and have public parks built around them. Others will have visitor education centers incorporated.

“These plants are going to be showcases for other cities and utility providers to come and see new state-of-the-art efficient plants. Sustainability is definitely front of mind while we’re working on them,” Cook says.

PCL was an ideal partner for the ESAP project because of PCL’s experience with public-private partnerships (P3s) and its collaborative approach.

“The federal government is relatively new to the P3 world. But P3s are extremely complex,” Cook says. “They truly require collaboration at all levels. When you look at the multiple authorities that have jurisdiction on this project, the thing that became very evident to the client group during the proposal process as the collaborative approach PCL was bringing.”

PCL’s approach to this project also demonstrates our solution provider mindset, which Cook says “permeates everything we do.”

“The approach we’ve taken has always been to put the project first. What is in the best interest of the project?” he says. “When we meet with the province of Quebec or the province of Ontario or the City of Ottawa, we don’t draw a line on what’s the government’s responsibility or PCL’s responsibility. It’s about working together to find the right fit for all stakeholders and coordinate with all the other constraints.”

Large-scale direct energy systems like the ESAP are rare in North America, but Cook points out they’re more common in Europe. In Denmark, for example, the Copenhagen district heating system provides more than 98% of the demand for heating across the city. Nearly 1,500 kilometers of pipe connects about 500,000 residents to the system.

Still, there are plenty of public institutions in North America who will modernize their aging smaller-scale direct energy systems soon.

“University campuses and hospitals across North America and the world are looking at decarbonizing and new projects. And we’ll be there,” Cook says. “All the same concerns with stewardship of the climate filter down through cities. They’re looking at doing exactly these sorts of things, and the ESAP will be a great example to point to of what PCL can do.”