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District Cooling in a Warming World: A Preview of the First District Energy Conference in Latin America

By District Energy posted 10-13-2023 15:16


Nowhere has the heat felt more immediate than in cities, creating an urgent need for sustainable cooling solutions. In Colombia, 75% of the country’s population lives in urban centers, and more than 70% of those cities are situated in warm climates where there is also a high demand for air conditioning.

In Colombia, Cartagena is  leading the way in developing cooling districts, with facilities in operation that serve the health care, commercial and residential sectors. But, as the planet continues to warm, the scale of the district cooling systems must match the scale of the heat. In Cartagena, staying cool has becomes not just a matter of comfort or luxury, but a vital aspect of public health. Currently in Colombia, there are six district cooling systems in operation in five cities, with two more under construction.

At the end of this month, the first-ever Latin America District Energy Conference will be held in Cartagena, Colombia. The organization hosting the event is “Energy Districts in Colombia” – a coalition comprised of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, with resources from the Economic Cooperation and Development Office- SECO of the Embassy of Switzerland. IDEA is also offering support, as are the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Cool Coalition.

Rapidly scaling district cooling

The conference comes at an important inflection point for the energy transition, particularly in Latin America. Summer is right around the corner in much of Latin America, after a record-breaking winter – not for cold temperatures, but for heat – with thermometers topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Chile and Argentina. Given the recent heat, there is a pressing need to take the next step to scale district cooling even further across Latin America. Fortunately, a roadmap for doing so already exists, nearly half a world away.

In Dubai, where temperatures also regularly climb above 100°F, the need for cooling is also critical. United Arab Emirate-based Empower has built itself into what is now the world’s largest district cooling services provider. This, after the company was founded just 20 years ago. In the two decades since it came into existence, Empower has grown to serve more than 110,000 corporate and individual customers in more than 1,400 buildings, with a capacity of 1.4 million refrigeration tons – providing comfort, relief and safety to the people of Dubai in a part of the world that sees some of the planet’s most extreme heat conditions. At the conference, Bin Shafar will discuss the strategies Empower used to scale the district cooling system so quickly, and how those strategies can be applied to Latin America.

The path to net zero

While traditional air conditioning adds greenhouse gas emissions and heat to the air, exacerbating the problem of global warming, district cooling systems can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% and improve the energy efficiency of buildings. District cooling systems are not source-specific, they are able to connect to one or many renewable sources– an industrial heat pump, recovered waste heat, rivers, lakes and solar, deep geothermal or geo-exchange – to chill water, then supply that water to connected   buildings in the district to absorb heat from space and then return warmer  water back to the plant through a network of insulated  underground pipes.  . District cooling systems may also employ thermal storage using giant ‘ice batteries’ where huge volumes of ice are frozen at night when prices and strain on the grid are reduced.  The ice is melted the next day during daytime when cooling loads peak, relieving pressure on the electric grid while providing critical cooling services. Some district energy systems still run on natural gas. While not a renewable source, these systems are efficient, giving them a role to play in reducing emissions as well. Additionally, a big benefit of district energy is that it is not static. Systems that use gas as a source today can be updated to leverage renewable energy sources, as more come online in the months and years ahead.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, Enwave uses water from Lake Ontario for   the world’s largest deep lake water cooling (DLWC) system, which has done away with chillers and compressors completely. Instead, this DLWC draws cold water (39°F) from nearly 300 feet below the surface of Lake Ontario to buildings in the city, including Scotiabank Arena (the home of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs), as well as city hall, other commercial and residential buildings, hospitals, data centers and college and university campuses. At the conference, Coutinho will dive into these systems in more detail, offering his expertise on how to use renewable energy sources in district cooling systems and how best to access capital.

Establishing public/private partnerships

The installation of a new district cooling system requires cooperation and collaboration between public and private sectors. Navigating the regulatory landscape can feel daunting, especially when planting the flag of district energy in a market that is new to the technology. However, district cooling can be an integral aspect of the strategy of a municipality, or country, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach net-zero goals. Mariaca will discuss how she and her team have navigated regulatory issues in Colombia, and the best practices other Latin American countries can use to comply with regulations and work with government officials to move district cooling projects forward.