Innovia GEO: rallying communities around geothermal heating and cooling

As we navigate a global pandemic and a just recovery, we want to amplify the stories of those who are working towards a low-carbon future. To build a vibrant low-carbon economy, we’ll need innovative tech that supports our needs while preserving the environment. That’s why Bullfrog Power is sponsoring the Centre for Social Innovation’s Earth Tech, an accelerator for startups and nonprofits working on climate and freshwater solutions.

Andrew Lee, the co-founder and President at Innovia GEO, spent a decade working on large renewable energy projects across North and South America. “I witnessed how the cost of wind, solar, and hydro projects have dropped so much that they’re now transforming our power systems,” he said. “But when I started looking at the energy use in our buildings and homes, I was shocked.”  

That’s because Andrew found that the vast majority of a home’s energy is used for heating and cooling—representing a staggering 83.5% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced from our buildings. It was this sobering number that helped him realize our need to find renewable heating and cooling solutions in order to meaningfully decarbonize our buildings and homes. 

Digging for answers 

Geothermal heating and cooling came on Andrew’s radar when he and Jim Ilkay were asked to work on a townhouse development in Toronto that had been left incomplete due to bankruptcy. The development had a partially constructed geothermal system, but the new owners were advised to abandon it and install natural gas furnaces and standard air conditioners. 

Andrew Lee and Jim Ilkay of Innovia GEO
Andrew and Jim, the co-founders of Innovia GEO

Fortunately, Andrew and Jim convinced the owners to investigate the system before making a decision. That set them on the path to completing a clean, renewable geothermal project for 55 Toronto homeowners! After the project’s success, Andrew couldn’t help but wonder why such a green, efficient energy source wasn’t more widely used. 

“We found that the high upfront cost of geothermal systems was the main barrier to adoption, so we started Innovia GEO to tackle that barrier,” Andrew told us. Their startup is one of 16 ventures participating in this year’s Earth Tech accelerator run by CSI’s Climate Ventures.

A down-to-earth community 

Innovia GEO seeks to expand on an innovative, community-based financing structure that Andrew and Jim implemented at the townhouse project. “The community itself owns the geothermal system thanks to a green loan,” Andrew explained. “The homeowners then pay a monthly fee to the condo corporation—that fee covers maintenance costs and loan payments.” 

The most exiting aspect of this community-ownership model is that once the loan is repaid, the homeowners can choose to reduce their monthly payments or use the geothermal system as an asset to secure another loan. “Those funds could be used for so many things, like building a community park,” Andrew said. “We’re really excited about how this structure can encourage more people to adopt geothermal, and how their communities will benefit from owning the system.” 

Installing piles for a geothermal system

Andrew is also passionate about educating anyone and everyone about geothermal heating and cooling, which isn’t widely understood in Canada. He told us to think of the system like a giant rechargeable heat battery. The Earth naturally absorbs heat from the Sun. In the winter, underground pipes filled with liquid concentrate this heat from the ground and bring it up into the building. In the summer, the process is reversed to move heat from the building into the ground. Because the system is moving heat rather than generating it, it’s much more efficient than burning natural gas or using air conditioning. “Typically, for every unit of electricity used to run a geothermal system, you get three to five units of heating or cooling,” Andrew added. 

The solution under our feet 

Innovia GEO is also working on making geothermal systems less expensive upfront by integrating geothermal functionality into the steel foundation piles that are typically used in building construction. That way, the foundation infrastructure that’s already going in the ground could also meet the building’s heating and cooling needs. Andrew and Jim hope to bring their technology to market next year.  

Steel foundation piles

“Participating in the Earth Tech program has provided us with validation that we’re working on something that, in the words of the program, will positively impact communities and ecosystems across Canada,” Andrew said. “The support we’re receiving through the program’s advisors, sponsoring organizations like Bullfrog Power, and the other ventures has been incredible. This is a tremendous platform for us to accelerate the development of our initiatives and to reach communities across Canada.” 

Heating and cooling buildings accounts for 22% of Canada’s energy use. Geothermal is one of the most impactful ways we can decarbonize our buildings and homes, and it’s figuratively and literally sitting right beneath our feet!

Andrew Lee

It’s clear to Andrew that developing new technology will be important in our fight against climate change, but it also takes time to develop, test, and implement. “While we work on new technology, we can’t lose sight of finding innovative solutions using existing knowledge,” Andrew said.  

“Geothermal tech has been around for decades—it functions in the same way as your refrigerator and air conditioner, but it hasn’t been widely adopted here,” Andrew told us. “Heating and cooling buildings accounts for 22% of Canada’s energy use. Geothermal is one of the most impactful ways we can decarbonize our buildings and homes, and it’s figuratively and literally sitting right beneath our feet!” 

Curious about other Earth Tech ventures? Click here to find out how Just Vertical makes furniture that feeds you.