Construction of District Geo-Exchange Energy System Underway at VIU

Debra Smilski, VIU project manager, and Jeff Quibell, Falcon Engineering lead geo-exchange engineer, are thrilled with how well construction of the District Geo-Exchange Energy System is going at the Nanaimo campus.

May 25, 2017 - 10:00am

Relying on water trapped underground in the abandoned Wakesiah mine, VIU’s geo-exchange system represents a huge leap forward in sustainability

Nobody could predict that the scores of workers who toiled in the Wakesiah coal mine in the early 1900s would be providing the infrastructure needed to heat and cool buildings at a University – nearly a century later.

Vancouver Island University’s (VIU) $2.4-million District Geo-Exchange Energy System is currently under construction and its success relies on a subterranean coal mine of yesteryear. The project is being funded in part through the federal government's Strategic Investment Fund ($1.1 million) with the remainder coming from VIU in colloboration with the University's community partners. The system will use the energy stored in water trapped in the abandoned Wakesiah mine, which stays at a relatively constant 11°C, to heat and cool buildings on campus.

“By using geo-exchange energy, VIU’s main campus will be reducing its carbon output for heating and cooling of new buildings to near zero. It’s a project that will position the institution as a leader in post-secondary clean technology,” said Dr.Ralph Nilson, VIU President and Vice-Chancellor. “This is a major step towards fulfilling VIU’s commitment to sustainability, which includes significantly reducing our carbon footprint. In later phases of the project, we will reach out to partners like the City of Nanaimo and School District 68 so that future renovations of their facilities may also benefit from the system.”

Contractors are currently in the process of constructing two water loops. The first is a mine water loop and the second is an ambient water loop. Both rely on two wells that have been drilled on campus. The mine water loop will bring the water to the surface, direct it through a pump house and then back to the mine. The ambient water loop takes the water from the pump house, sends it to buildings that are attached to the system, and returns it back to the pump house where the water rejoins the mine water loop. It means the water used by the system is recycled continuously.

“The water is brought up by the extraction well located on the north side of campus and from there is directed through a heat exchanger to campus buildings that will be equipped to use it,” said VIU project manager Debra Smilski. “The injection well is on the south side of campus, which is where the water will go back underground, completing the loop. Depending on the season, the water will either be heating or cooling the buildings that are connected to the system.”

Geo-exchange is one of three ongoing major projects at VIU Nanaimo, thanks to an investment of more than $60 million from the federal and provincial governments, VIU and the University's community partners.  Along with geo-exchange a Health and Science Centre and expanded Marine, Automotive and Trades Complex are currently under construction.

The new Health and Science Centre and Shq’apthut, VIU’s Aboriginal Gathering Place, will be the first buildings to be connected to the District Geo-Exchange Energy System. As the system moves from Phase 1 to subsequent phases, other buildings on campus will be considered.

Jeff Quibell is the lead geo-exchange engineer with Falcon Engineering, the company responsible for guiding the project to completion. He has worked on geo-exchange projects all over Canada, but the VIU project holds a special interest for him. His company drilled a test well back in 2010 when the idea of geo-exchange was first being explored.

“If you lay schematics of the Nanaimo campus on top of a blueprint of the Wakesiah mine it matches perfectly for what we are trying to do. It’s as if it were planned out this way,” said Quibell. “It’s kind of remarkable that so many decades later we are repurposing what is considered one of the dirtiest forms of energy, and turning that legacy into the cleanest form of energy.”

The mine workings underneath VIU were originally accessed from a tram that operated from where the current sports fields are behind Nanaimo District Secondary School (NDSS) on Wakesiah Avenue. From 1918 to 1930, workers took the tram deep into the Wakesiah coal mine. The same tram took the coal they mined out. Once the mine was shut down, the pumps that kept the tunnels from flooding were turned off and groundwater slowly filled the mine.

“The mine workings underneath the University are at varying elevations between 425 and 625 feet deep,” said Quibell. “For every 100 feet you drill, the ground temperature increases by half a degree Celsius. It’s that energy from the Earth that the water captures and it’s why this is such an effective, reliable source of heat.”

Geo-exchange uses heat pumps to transfer the heat captured in the water to the buildings. Electricity is used to drive those heat pumps, but in BC power is derived from hydro which makes the impact of that use negligible.

“For each unit of electrical energy used, the geo-exchange will produce four units of heat,” said Quibell “That means three heat units are clean, renewable energy drawn from the ground. It’s why the heating and cooling provided by the system is virtually greenhouse gas free.”

Smilski says once completed a pump house will be the only visible structure on campus associated with the project. It will house heat pumps and the state-of-the-art technology required to monitor and regulate system operations.

“The goal of the project is first to ensure new structures built on campus are connected to the geo-exchange system and, as the project moves forward, to replace aging heating and cooling systems in older VIU buildings with new equipment that can utilize the sustainable energy resource that will be available on campus,” said Smilski.  “This project supports VIU’s community sustainability mandate. It allows the University to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and engage in research and innovation in this important area.”

The project is expected to be fully operational in 2018. For more information, visit Campus Development.



Dane Gibson, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.740.6288 | C: 250.618.7296 | E: |  T: @viunews

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