Why not electrify the streets of Winnipeg?

The city of Holland, Mich. has since 1988 been warming its streets by pumping hot waste water through a system of under-the-asphalt piping to remove snow and ice. Benefits have included more downtown retail traffic, no shoveling, safer pedestrian walkways and no cracking of winter pavements.

By Dorothy Dobbie
By Dorothy Dobbie

So far it’s been a bitterly cold, snowy winter. At least another $30-some million will go toward removing the snow from city streets this year. That doesn’t count the cost of cleaning up the 21,000 tonnes of salt or the 70,000 tonnes of sand laid down annually to combat the snow and ice.

Add to that cost the annual damage to the infrastructure caused by snow removal carpets and flooring from tracked-in salt and to the general environment (not to mention the rivers), and the bill soon gets pretty astronomical.

Could heated sidewalks and roadways be the answer?
Could heated sidewalks and roadways be the answer?

There’s a better way
Not only that, but the piles of snow, salt and sand that we plough up and remove each year are creating huge toxic waste sites that take years to melt and who knows how long to detoxify.

But is there a better way? Many think so and the city of Holland, Mich., which gets about 100 cm of snow each winter, long ago put that thought into action. The citizens of Holland have since 1988 been warming their streets by pumping hot waste water through a system of under-the-asphalt piping to remove snow and ice. They have expanded the system several times since. This system can remove about an inch of snow at temperatures down to minus 10 C. (Conventional chemical de-icers melt snow at temperatures down to minus 10 C. Calcium chloride will do the job as low as minus 31.7 C but it leaves a slimy scum and is more harmful to plants.)

This method of dealing with snow removal in the heart of Holland has seen many business benefits, including more downtown retail traffic, no salt and sand tracking into stores, no shoveling and safer pedestrian walkways. The system has also prevented cracking and buckling of winter pavements, not to mention the reduction of street damage from equipment and salt.

Could this happen in Winnipeg? Technology has improved since 1988. Scientists are looking at creating solar roadways made of very strong glass imbedded with solar cells that would not only melt falling snow but would provide a source of power for electrical vehicles, lighting and LED traffic signs along the road. This is a very expensive proposition so other experiments are underway, including one where solar-heat-absorbing concrete would store sun-warmed water that would be used to heat the pavement when the cold weather sets in.

In Oulu, Finland, the downtown pavement is bare, just like in Holland, Mich. In Iceland, particularly in Reykjavik, many paved surfaces are heated by geothermal water. In Japan, studies are underway to use underground thermal energy to heat streets. And more and more commercial enterprises are using electrical heating to minimize the need for snow removal and create safe and hazard-free zones around their properties. The Reh-fit Centre in Winnipeg has a system installed in the pavement in front of the building.

Start with the sidewalks
The cities that have tried snow melting systems have limited the idea to the downtown area because, clearly, the technology is expensive to install and support and much of the research has been directed at the energy source. Still, in a city like Winnipeg, much good could be done for the rejuvenation of downtown even if we simply melted the sidewalks as a beginning.

Melting the snow from our streets is a do-able thing. It’s a bold idea whose time has come.

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