Waste sewer heat powers Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek community


The City of Vancouver used the Vancouver Olympics as a catalyst for a legacy development to rehabilitate former industrial lands with an environmentally friendly athletes village turned mix-used community. After public pushback, the projected select waste-heat recovery to power the project over the lower cost and GHG biomass option. The Southeast False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility is the first in North America that recovers waste heat from a wastewater treatment system to supply heating energy and hot water to mixed-use buildings.


  • The City of Vancouver owns and operates the facility.
  • The provincial government provided a grant, the federal government made a loan available and the city provided funds through their Capital Financing Fund.
  • FVB Energy Inc. supplied the technical expertise and supported the design and implementation of the facility.
  • The Millenium Development Group was in charge of developing the infrastructure required for the facility.


The Southeast False Creek (SEFC) development is situated on the south side of False Creek in Vancouver, British Columbia. Originally designed as a mixed-use community with an estimated population of 11,000-13,000 people housed in a residential neighbourhood. Some of the buildings were part of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics Athletes Village. Built on a 32 hectare brownfield historically housing rail-yards and ship-yards. The area covers an estimated 6 million square feet.

The Challenge

Some residents had a negative perception of the original plan for a biomass plant and some concerns over the sewer heat recovery system because the technology was relatively unknown to the community. Neighbourhood associations voiced concerns over the housing of an industrial energy facility amidst a dense residential neighbourhood. Concerns voiced by the community included possibility of odour, air pollution and contamination and the unaesthetic presence of industrial smokestacks.

Developers, facing mandatory connection, had some apprehensions about the costs associated with the heating systems when compared to the business as usual electric heating systems.

The City of Vancouver, being the sole owner of the project, had to assume risks related to high capital costs that are associated with district energy projects.


Managing public expectations in tight timelines

The Southeast False Creek development was conceived as a legacy project of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. The Olympics providing a catalyst to develop a sustainable neighbourhood in the polluted brownlands at the heart of Vancouver’s growing core. The massive plan to clean up and build the games’ athletes village also brought tight construction timelines for the development and the district energy system.

The original plan to use a biomass plant to provide heat was the lower cost and lower GHG option, but was abandoned for a sewer heat recovery system as a result of public opposition over concerns around air quality and potential delays from regional government approvals. With the tight Olympic games timelines, the city pivoted their technological approach. The city ran a steering committee consisting of various city departments (finance, legal, planning, engineering) simplifying the project coordination.

The city conducted two rounds of public engagement to address the concerns of the local community and other stakeholders. After the pushback over plans for biomass, the city formed neighbourhood committees with neighbourhood associations and hosted public forums to explain the reasoning behind and benefits of the project.

To assuage concerns over the look of the natural gas boilers, the city commissioned local artists to turn the natural gas boiler stacks, deemed to be unsightly, into works of art.

Controlling and mitigating the high capital costs

The rates for the project were similar to a traditional utility with revenue coming from the customer base. The city implemented a mandatory connection requirement to reduce the risk of and improve the economies of scale of the project. The city also ran deficits during the early years to make the project cost-competitive in the short-term.

The city carried out the construction and procurement of expensive equipment in stages to mitigate the high capital costs. The plant capacity and construction was staged to align with the evolution of the project’s development. The city provided additional capacity to the system when new neighbourhood buildings were constructed. This helped delay the most capital intensive portion of the project towards the end of the build-out when higher customer demand (and revenue) was present, making for more favourable economics.

Photo Credit: Alfred Hermida

Waste heat warms the community’s showers and sinks

Heat is recovered from untreated urban wastewater at the Southeast False Creek Energy Centre and heat pumps are used to transfer the energy to a closed-loop hot water distribution system. An insulated closed-loop underground piping system circulates the hot water heated from the sewage recovery around the neighbourhood to be used in the showers and sinks of the community.

Sewage heat recovery systems, though similar to regular geothermal ground source heat pumps, are more efficient because the sewage runs hotter and installation is cheaper. During the coldest nights of the year, the heat pumps are supplemented with high-efficiency natural gas boilers to achieve optimal heating levels. The heat pump technology heats the water to about 65°C, which is sufficient for residential space heating and domestic water heating.

Each connected building has its own energy transfer station to exchange energy with the circulating water loop. At the same time, they monitor the building’s energy consumption using a metering system. Each building’s energy transfer system delivers space heating and domestic hot water to the individual units. The facility can be adapted to accommodate various other renewable energy sources and can therefore provide the flexibility to deal with future advances in technology, energy security and affordability. Previously tested and flexible systems helped in the smooth running of the facility with minimal technical glitches.

Heat Recovery

Photo Credit: Alfred Hermida

The Results

The planned system expansion will serve over 2,100,000 m2 of development at full build-out, with GHG savings forecast at 14,000 tons of CO2-equivalent per year.



Anticipated reduction in GHG emissions

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