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Wellesley citizens raising concerns about fossil fuels in the design of the new rec. centre

There are plenty of green features planned for the new Wellesley Township Recreation Centre, but some were hoping for more in a project that this week broke ground.

“Our township has missed an amazing opportunity to show bold leadership and have fallen short on our responsibility and commitment to reducing our emissions during a climate emergency,” said Wellesley resident Brenda Leis at last week’s council meeting.

Leis took aim at council’s previous decision to go forward with natural gas-powered heating units for the project rather than a geothermal system or other carbon-neutral alternative. 

Leis and the other delegates argue the decision to reject carbon-neutral forms of heating was done too quickly, with not enough research. They pointed out township staff had committed to performing a cost- and environmental-benefits analysis for all operations in the Wellesley Township 2019-2025 energy conservation and demand management plan.

The plan states that, “The investment for these types of measures [carbon neutral measures], can be significantly greater than conservation initiatives and therefore, should be considered on a case-by-case basis through a cost and environmental benefits analysis.

During last week’s council meeting, the delegates asked council if a cost and environmental benefits analysis had been completed for the geothermal heating option.

“The efforts that were put in place to look at the geothermal option were provided to us from our mechanical engineer at the time and the cost analysis that was done was a $2.7 to $2.915 million option right now, and a 20-plus year payback, and that was the information that was given to council at that time,” said Danny Roth, Wellesley’s director of recreation.

“A full cost analysis was not done in the interest of the timelines that we had to make these decisions on.”

In a later interview, Roth said that the recreation centre’s design does include multiple carbon-reducing features including in-floor heating for the arena that is captured from the ice refrigeration room rather than ceiling-mounted heaters, an insulation value higher than code, solar panels on the roof, EV charging station, and air source heat pumps. The rooftop natural gas-powered heating units are intended to be a backup source of heat when the temperature dips below minus-five degrees Celsius, he said.

“There’s a lot that’s been done, and there’s no question more can be done in the future,” he said.  

Roth said the project was awarded to Ball Construction in December. After hearing from community members, staff asked Ball Construction about installing geothermal in February, and the mechanical engineer with the company responded with a geothermal estimate in early March.

“At the end of the day, the decision has to be made on what you’re getting for your dollar. And the geothermal options that were looked at were upwards of $3 million addition with a 20- to 30-year payback. And when you get into 20- or 30-year payback on equipment, you’re looking at replacing that equipment already at that point in time. So there’s really, truly not a payback.”

Leis and the other delegates say they are supportive and excited for the recreation centre and feel it will bring the community together. However, they feel the township has not demonstrated thorough research of the matter, and should take more time to design a truly carbon neutral centre, saying that in 2022 features like extra insulation should be considered default.  

At last week’s meeting, Coun. Shelley Wagner made a motion to reconsider the geothermal decision. Ultimately, the motion did not receive enough votes from the rest of the council members and it did not pass.

“If we’re going to lay out $3 million for this, something’s got to go. We’re going to have to cut something else,” said Coun. Carl Smit in the meeting. “We’re already at our limit. We all know the numbers. It was supposed to be $15 million of financing, now we’re way, way over that.”

When asked about council’s objection to the extra cost of geothermal, resident Shauna Leis noted the township had declared a climate emergency.

“When a true emergency is declared, we can find the finances to do the right thing. We’ve declared one, but I don’t think we’re acting like it,” she said.

Leis said her research shows other jurisdictions have retrofitted their operations to geothermal heating because of an identified cost-savings.

Given the timeline the township set for itself, squeezing in more changes wouldn’t be easy, said Roth.

“At some point in time, we had to move on with this contract, and the equipment had to be ordered and that’s where we’re at right now.”

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