This November, CenTrio won the EuroHeat & Power’s Global District Energy Climate Award for its system in Chicago - the largest carbon-free ice battery chilled-water district cooling system in the United States. The award celebrates sustainable district energy solutions around the world, and winners are chosen by an international jury. CenTrio won in the ‘Out of the Box’ category – a category that requires entrants to “show evidence of significant innovation in the District Energy sector” and demonstrate “a significant technological, commercial or financial advance” for the industry.
Jim Rylowicz is the Vice President of Business Development at CenTrio, sat down with IDEA to talk about his role at CenTrio and the company’s Chicago system.
IDEA: Jim, thanks for joining us. Let’s begin with a bit about you – you’re VP of Business Development at CenTrio, what does that entail and what is your day-to-day like?
JR: What I love about my role is that every day is different. I’m focused on all things “customer,” both existing and prospective. I work with every department in our organization to figure out the best ways to position our services to drive the most value to the marketplace and solve problems for building owners, developers, and operators, while supporting our business development professionals across the U.S. in doing the same. That could entail connecting new buildings to one of our networks, structuring commercial deals, negotiating contracts, or developing entirely new service strategies.
IDEA: Let’s turn now to CenTrio’s footprint in Chicago, which is a large one - you serve more than a third of the downtown area. How many buildings exactly does the system serve?
Jim Rylowicz: That’s right, our district cooling system in Chicago serves approximately 38% of Chicago’s downtown core – that’s 125 clients in 110 buildings, with a combined 53 million square feet of building space. We have six cooling plants in Chicago in total, four of which have thermal ice storage, and three of which use the Chicago River for heat rejection in lieu of cooling towers. Some of our major clients include the Chicago Board of Trade, the Old Post Office, and the Merchandise Mart.
IDEA: And, in addition to all that space, the system also boasts the largest ice battery in the country?
JR: Yes, that’s correct. At peak production, our Chicago system can store 310,000 ton-hours of thermal energy. In fact, it’s not only the largest ice battery system in the U.S., but it’s also the largest carbon-zero cooling system.
IDEA: That’s impressive. If nothing else has brought home the urgency of the need to mitigate climate change, the summer of 2023 certainly has – with 31 consecutive days of temperatures above 110 degrees in Phoenix, massive wildfires in Canada and their smoke shrouding cities across the U.S. and the flooding of entire communities in Vermont - bringing the case for action literally to people’s doorsteps. How did you achieve carbon-zero status?
JR: Sustainability is a major focus at CenTrio, and we’re always looking for ways to become more efficient, reduce our carbon emissions and reduce water usage. Our carbon-zero status was achieved through multiple strategies working together. We maximize the deployment of our ice thermal storage system, which shifts a large percentage of our electrical load to nighttime when the grid has a lower carbon intensity. We’ve completed energy efficiency projects, including modernizing our largest thermal storage plant by replacing older equipment with newer, larger, high-efficiency machines. Once we attained maximum carbon reduction through these operational strategies, we were able to invest in a power purchase agreement to obtain electricity from carbon-free sources. This carbon zero PPA was entirely a CenTrio investment and did not result in increased costs for our customers.
We also view water savings as an important part of the sustainability discussion. We leverage our river water facilities to reduce the burden on the city’s potable water system by 250 million gallons annually.
Vice President of Business Development for CenTrio
IDEA: How does district energy and systems like CenTrio’s in Chicago fit within the energy transition and the push to move off fossil fuels?
JR: We’re extremely proud of achieving carbon-zero status in our Chicago system and believe that our systems across the country have a huge role to play as society moves toward a zero-carbon future. Our industry’s systems can connect to renewables at scale and deploy the latest technologies that may not be as well suited for individual building applications. When we do this, all the buildings connected to a district benefit without needing to do anything with their infrastructure. When we reached carbon-zero status in Chicago that meant 53 million square feet of space suddenly had no carbon emissions associated with their cooling production. By making that investment at the district energy system, we reduce the risk, disruption and uncertainty of an energy transition for our customers.
The next step for us is working with our customers and the communities we serve to be enablers of further carbon reduction initiatives. While we can take care of the carbon emissions from thermal production, we want to work with customers to maximize their efficiency and support the transition to electrified heating.
IDEA: Traditionally, when we think of Chicago, we think of brutally cold winters and that famous nickname, “the windy city.” But, even Chicago is not immune from the changes of our warming world. How is CenTrio preparing for rising temperatures in our warming world?
JR: Chicago is certainly not immune to the effects of climate change, and our system is well-positioned to adapt to the changing weather patterns. People here in Chicago, as elsewhere, will be looking to stay cool and productive at work or at home oftentimes with traditional air conditioners that put strain on the grid during afternoon hours when electricity use and prices are the highest. District energy can help relieve some of that pressure. As the world continues to get hotter, the need for cooling systems is more pressing and not just a luxury, but a matter of public health. Our focus is on preparing for the most extreme heat waves so we can provide reliable service when it’s most needed.
IDEA: What do you think the future holds for CenTrio’s operations in Chicago?
JR: With the existing cooling operations, we expect to see continued growth of the system as building owners and developers look for ways to drive value to their properties while meeting the sustainability goals the marketplace is setting. We’ll be expanding our distribution footprint and production facilities in the years ahead to meet that demand, while continuing to develop and optimize operational strategies to maximize the positive impact we have on achieving sustainability goals.
IDEA: And for the future of district energy?
JR: The future is bright for the industry as a whole. While we certainly face challenges related to decarbonizing systems in cost-effective ways, the building owners, developers, and operators we serve face significant challenges as well. The scale of our systems and the sophistication and expertise of the people operating them provide us with an incredible opportunity to be solution providers during this time of change. That value to the end user is huge.
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