Jeff Harder, USGBC
Once upon a time, coal was king in Saint Paul, Minnesota, creating steam that traveled through a network of underground pipes and tunnels to illuminate and heat downtown. The underlying infrastructure, known as a district energy system, had been around for a century, a relic from when streetlights and trolleys arrived en masse in American cities. But with a few game-changing ideas and decades of hard work, District Energy St. Paul—the city’s nonprofit heating and cooling utility—is on the cutting edge of decarbonization today, relying heavily on locally harvested wood chips, a solar thermal installation, and other renewables to power 200 buildings ranging from Fortune 500 offices to condominiums.
District energy helps building owners and communities provide reliable, resilient heating and cooling while meeting their sustainability goals and curbing carbon emissions. It bypasses the need for single-building boilers and chillers (and the accompanying maintenance and repairs), allows operators to harness waste heat and water, cheaply divert and store surplus energy, and match local renewable energy sources with local thermal use. And the notion of decarbonizing through district energy has reached critical mass in North America, with projects underway or under development from San Francisco to Ohio and beyond.