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Planet Traveller digs its way into a low carbon economy

On the South side of College Street, next door to Kensington landmark St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church, a new kind of business is being created, brick by brick. After being abandoned for 10 years, 357 College is undergoing a transformation to become, in the words of investor Tom Rand, "the greenest hotel in North America."

In mid-2010, Rand and contractor Anthony Aarts plan to open the doors to Planet Traveller, a youth hostel created from the frame of a 140-year old building. The idea came to Aarts during a night of snooping around the neighbourhood. In 2006, while the building lay dormant, he squeezed himself into a portal that led to the old elevator shaft, and clambered up to the roof.

Inspired by the view down College Street, he came up with a plan to transform the building and went looking for funds from Rand, head of venture capital firm VCi Green Funds. Rand agreed, under the condition that the entire building use a little energy as possible. "There are other green buildings in the city, but we're taking it a step further," he says. "Our building is going to have an operational carbon footprint 75% smaller than usual."  

The easiest way to do this was to dig a massive hole underneath College Street and tap the heat of the Earth's core. Instead of using it to boil water and create electricity, like in Iceland, in Toronto the heat below the frost line is just enough to warm water, which is then used to warm the building.

Rand and Aarts hired CleanEnergy Developments to run one mile of zig-zagging pipe underneath the laneway beside the building. A glycol mixture circulates through the piping, picking up heat at a maximum depth of 400 feet, where the temperature is around 14-15 degrees. "The architect was skeptical we'd get a councillor to let us dig for geothermal, but [Ward 20 Councillor] Adam [Vaughn] has been great," says Aarts.

When the fluid resurfaces the liquid travels through several heat pumps scattered through the building which increase the heat to room temperature. The pumps themselves use a lot of electricity, but not nearly as much as the building itself generates from an array of photovoltaic panels on the roof.

Any extra electricity they generate can be sold back to the grid under Ontario's new microFIT program. Aarts estimates they will make $400-$500 per month selling electricity back to the City for a guaranteed $0.80 per kWh. Combine that with the money saved through heating bills and you've got a building that actually makes money while reducing environmental impact.

In the future, Rand is confident that projects like this will take root because they make so much money. It's not altruism that will transform our society into a low-carbon economy, but the profit motive. "The total cost of the equipment here was not very much, around 5% of the cost of the building," he says. "If you can borrow that money, your monthly payments will be around $1000, which is less than the money saved on energy bills. You're making money."  

Add to that the 25% that the province and federal government have each committed as a rebate for green capital costs, it starts to look like an attractive business model.  "They key is, from a policy perspective, if you can borrow the money cheaply, all this pays for itself," says Rand.

The market has become even more favourable since they bought the building in 2006, as green technologies become more accessible. "The technology that's now available is making it easier for us," says Aarts. "The demand and the technology are starting to mesh." In 2006, large LED lights were purely experimental; now they pepper the guest rooms. The lighting in the whole building uses less energy than a 2-slice toaster.

Energy savings are everywhere. Around the shower drains, Aarts has wrapped a copper pipe made by Waterloo's RenewABILITY in order to capture the heat from the hot water that runs down the drain. The heat is fed back into the cold water pipe, allowing the shower user to use less hot water. On the roof lies another heat exchange pump, sucking heat from the steamy air that escapes through the bathroom vents and recycling it back into the building.

In order to make this process transparent to the guests, most of the energy saving equipment will be visible behind glass walls. "We have meters on every single heat device…that will sum up how much energy we've derived from the system," says Aarts. "The guests can see how much energy is being saved at any given time."

In the nearly finished roof-top patio, an electricity metre will be installed above the bar. "When guests are sitting up here drinking they're going to see how much energy is being produced by the solar panels." Outside, they've used all the other available roof space for energy production. Even part of the patio is covered by photovoltaic panels. "When its 30 degrees in the summer, the shade they're enjoying is actually producing electricity," he says.

With all these energy savings and a healthy profit margin, Rand is clearly optimistic: "Our claim is to be the greenest hotel in North America, and I have yet to meet somebody to tell me we're wrong."

Joseph Wilson is a freelance writer on issues of science, technology and culture.

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