riverdale hillbillies

It turns out that the people of Riverdale are a lot like the Clampetts in that TV classic Beverly Hillbillies. Except that instead of living on top of a fortune in crude oil, Riverdalians have built their houses smack on top of a vast and potentially lucrative aquifer of - get this - tepid water.

Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Jed

Poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food

And up through the ground came a bubbling crude

(Oil, that is, Texas tea, black gold)

Theme song from the Beverly Hillbillies

It turns out that the people of Riverdale are a lot like the Clampetts in that TV classic Beverly Hillbillies. Except that instead of living on top of a fortune in crude oil, Riverdalians have built their houses smack on top of a vast and potentially lucrative aquifer of – get this – tepid water.

While this may not sound as exciting as a Texas gusher, or even Takhini Hot Springs, it could mean big bucks with home-heating fuel around a buck a litre and likely headed higher. All we need is a way to get the heat energy out of the aquifer and into our buildings.

The technology to do this is called the heat pump. Embarrassingly for those who’ve been paying thousands in oil bills for decades, heat pumps are not a novel and exotic technology. In fact, you already have one in your house: your fridge.

Picture it this way. Your fridge has two parts: the inside where the cold beer is, and what thermodynamics engineers call the “warm linty bits” on the back. The fridge’s job is to pump heat out of the beer and into the warm linty bits (which, in flagrant disregard for the owner’s manual, you probably have never cleaned).

To heat your house, you just reverse the familiar beer-chilling process. You essentially build a fridge into the wall of your house, but backwards. The inside where the cold beer normally goes is on the outside. The warm linty bits are inside, heating the house. You chill your backyard to minus 10.1 Celsius from minus 10 Celsius, and bring the inside up to room temperature.

The aquifer under Riverdale comes into the picture because heat pumps are even more efficient if you can draw heat from water or the ground, rather than just the air in your backyard.

Importantly, heat pumps don’t burn costly and climate-changing fossil fuels. They use electricity.

It seems like such a no-brainer. After all, we live on top of an aquifer and right beside a dam that has a surplus of clean, renewable electricity most of the year.

Which brings up decision making processes, especially government ones. A good example is the new $50-million project to build a replacement for FH Collins high school. The design team is looking at heat pumps, but according to recent newspaper reports the government is still undecided after a year of study and may proceed with more traditional heating technologies.

The government currently pays a fortune to heat FH. The heating consultant’s report isn’t publicly available, but rumour has it that FH’s heating bill is well over $500,000 per year. Another consultant’s report on Vanier high school estimated its heating costs at around $225,000 per year with heating fuel at 97 cents per litre, and FH is a much larger and more rickety structure.

Yukonomist attended the public meeting with FH’s heating consultants in August. They were an impressive bunch, and had equally impressive computer models. They had ‘round-the-clock climate data for everyday of the year in Whitehorse, and could run designs for FH Collins through simulated years and see what the heating bill looked like.

The consultants were careful to say their analysis wasn’t final, but the general tone was that a heat pump might be an excellent solution for the new FH.

However, there are three reasons why heat pumps might never happen.

Firstly, electricity isn’t free. The heating consultants assumed that Whitehorse electricity prices would rise at five per cent per year for the next few decades. This was the same assumption they were using for oil prices, and it has a huge impact on the financial attractiveness of heat pumps.

It will be very strange indeed if the Department of Education kills heat pumps because it expects electricity prices to double over the next 15 years. Because if that’s the government’s plan, Yukon Energy and the Department of Economic Development aren’t telling it to mining investors (and the rest of us).

Anyway, assuming the government doesn’t have a secret plan to double electricity prices by 2025, the economics of heat pumps are quite good. The MacBride Museum has one, and they figure they pay just $1,800 a year to heat their big new building, including regular electric backup heat when it gets so cold the heat pumps are less effective. Patricia Cunning, the museum’s director, loves how cost effective the new heat pump is. “We’re a publicly funded organization … we’re always trying to cut costs,” she says.

The second obstacle to heat pumps is a desire by government departments to create “biofuel” jobs. The idea is that if FH uses some kind of modern woodchip boiler, it will create jobs for the people who cut, chip and deliver the wood. But organizing a reliable, inexpensive supply of woodchips has proven difficult in the past. Both the biofuel system at Elijah Smith school and Yukon College’s gasifier system have had persistent problems.

Also, this kind of job creation thinking has major flaws. Not only does it neglect the fact that the heat pump would also require people with jobs to install and maintain it, but also that the wood-chipping jobs would not be high-value add jobs.

If the government just wants to create lots of jobs, it should put a 50-gallon barrel woodstove in each classroom and give each teacher a wood budget. Even better, make it illegal to use chainsaws. That would create a lot more jobs to cut the wood for the new FH.

Finally, there is resistance to change. Despite the fact that everyone is familiar with fridges and air conditioning units, people continue to think of heat pumps as new-fangled and unsuited to the Yukon’s severe cold.

But if the Sourdoughs at the MacBride Museum, who are “old school” by definition, can learn to love the heat pump then maybe the Yukon government should too.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.