District energy and sustainable neighbourhood planning: A study of the Burnaby Mountain District Energy System

Author/s: Charling Li

Creation date: 2016-01-06

Contact info: li.charling@gmail.com

Senior supervisor:  Anthony Perl

Keywords: Low-carbon district energy, Sustainable neighbourhood development, Governance networks, Barriers

Geographic focus: Burnaby, BC; British Columbia; Canada

Research question/s: What barriers were faced in the implementation of the Burnaby Mountain District Energy System and what was the role of the SFU Community Trust in overcoming these barriers?


While cities are a major source of GHG emissions, they are also the scale at which significant climate action policies can be carried out. This research looks at one tool cities are using to reduce their GHG emissions from buildings: low-carbon district energy systems. These systems share thermal energy among buildings in the same neighbourhood or district. More specifically, this study examines a district energy (DE) system launched in 2012 in “UniverCity,” a newly developed model sustainable neighbourhood on Burnaby Mountain in B.C. UniverCity’s district energy system (BMDES) is unique in that it was led largely by a university-affiliated developer, the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Community Trust, and in that it was not planned for at the start of the development. This research will be of interest to policymakers and developers in Metro Vancouver, as well as to others interested in the connections between energy, built urban form and the governance of sustainable cities. This research also contributes to dialogues on the governance of DE systems and the use of DE systems to reduce GHG emissions from buildings in light of the shifting policy context for low-energy buildings.


Through in-depth stakeholder interviews, document analysis and the application of a typology of barriers suggested by the Canadian District Energy Association, the author found that the Trust played a significant leadership role in shaping the framework of the BMEDS and in overcoming the various knowledge, governance and perception barriers the system faced on the path to implementation. While the Trust inserted a layer of authority into the  neighbourhood’s development framework, it did so without negatively affecting the private housing developers involved. This helped make district energy more acceptable to those developers and to UniverCity’s eventual home-buyers. The author also found that greater degrees of partnership between the public and private sector are needed in governance frameworks that include sustainability goals.