President's Message 2019 Spring/Summer Issue

By Robert Thornton posted 04-17-2019 16:12


The President's Message was featured in the 2019 Spring/Summer Issue of District Energy Magazine

In 1952, a magazine reporter asked notorious criminal Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, to which Sutton famously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Today, if you were to ask me why IDEA focuses on district energy in cities, the answer would be, “Because that’s where the emissions are.” Over 73 percent of global carbon emissions occur in cities. Currently, over 55 percent of the global population resides in cities, with that number expected to grow to 70 percent by 2050. Cities are the primary economic and cultural engines in most countries, and as urban populations grow, so do the compelling opportunities to deploy cleaner, more resilient energy infrastructure, both in established and emerging cities. IDEA members have focused on delivering efficient district energy in cities and on campuses since 1909. But the urgency to deploy these systems on a grand scale has never been greater. 

District energy is a proven urban environmental strategy. At the turn of the 19th century, large cities across the U.S. were plagued by poor air quality, presenting a public health issue and an economic challenge. There were also public safety concerns from increased risk of fire from thousands of furnaces and boilers in individual buildings. District heating systems were developed specifically to improve local air quality by reducing emissions from coal combustion in furnaces in individual buildings. Aggregating the thermal requirements of hundreds of buildings produced economies of scale to enable investment in more efficient central plants with more sophisticated emissions controls. 

In fact, Pittsburgh, Pa., our host city for IDEA2019, at one time had dangerous air quality with harmful levels of soot and particulates from local industry and hundreds of unregulated furnaces. In some ways, it was analogous to the Great Smog of 1952 in London, a severe air pollution event that caused 10,000 deaths and nearly 100,000 respiratory-related illnesses. Post World War II, the citizens, industry and local government of Pittsburgh came together to support deployment of district energy systems as a primary strategy to improve air quality and reduce the health risks. 

Today, Pittsburgh is once again demonstrating how local government leadership and stakeholder collaboration can contribute to a more resilient and sustainable local economy by investing in cleaner, modern energy infrastructure. I would urge readers to visit “ONEPGH – Resilient Pittsburgh” to see how local leadership from the office of Mayor William Peduto is fostering collaboration on issues of transportation, housing, industry and, most notably, deployment of cleaner energy infrastructure for the next century. 

One of the primary areas of focus at IDEA2019: “The Energy for More Resilient Cities” will be “Think Global, Act Local” as industry and government leaders share best practices on public-private partnering in district energy infrastructure. The conversation will feature successful and instructive cases where either public or private champions took the lead in driving investment. The challenge to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions will require a major overhaul of energy systems, especially in dense urban settings, and a rethinking of energy consumption across all sectors. 

Deployment of more energy-efficient district energy systems, optimizing available industrial waste heat and integrating renewable energy technologies for heating and cooling represents one of the most efficient ways to reduce emissions and primary energy demand in our cities and communities. Depending on local conditions, city policy makers may have more control over district energy development strategies, compared to other energy options, since district energy infrastructure is more likely to be built within city boundaries. According to findings by the U.N. Environment Programme and the Global Covenant of Mayors, deployment of district-scale clean energy could achieve global emissions reductions of 0.7 GtCO2 per year by 2050. 

Today, district energy is also a primary local air quality strategy in China and Chile. In Qingdao, China, public-private partners are expanding a district energy/CHP system to recover surplus heat from industry, cutting use of coal to improve local air quality and health conditions. Qingdao is one of China’s low-carbon pilot cities, targeting economic development through mitigation and adaptation through a low-temperature district heating network. Replacing coal, Qingdao will shift to natural gas, solar thermal, geothermal and surplus industrial heat as primary district heating, cooling and power systems for the city population of 400,000. The district energy network will cover 18.3 million sq m of heating area, 1.7 million sq m of cooling area, and 107.9 MWh of electricity generation. Compared to traditional coal-fired sources, the project is estimated to yield annual energy savings equivalent to 537,900 tons of standard coal, avoiding annual emissions of 1.4 MtCO2; improving local air quality through cutting emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter; and eliminating the transport of coal through urban areas by train or truck. 

Temuco, Chile, is shifting from reliance on individual wood-burning stoves and fireplaces to developing a biomass-based district heating system. Temuco has poor air quality, largely caused by burning firewood in woodstoves in homes. Incomplete and unregulated combustion contributes 93 percent of particulate matter in winter months, in addition to air pollution and contaminants such as formaldehyde, methane and black carbon, which impact respiratory health, leading to an estimated 400 to 500 premature deaths per year. With help from the U.N. District Energy in Cities Initiative, Temuco launched a district heating pilot project to assess and demonstrate the multiple advantages of central district heating. Additional evaluations will study locational energy mapping, market density and comparative lifecycle economics to determine system expansion options. From the government’s perspective, the primary economic and societal benefits include lowering health care costs from better air quality, not to mention the convenience and enhanced safety of district heating. 

District energy systems often generate local economic advantages by keeping energy dollars circulating in the local economy while also reducing strain on the regional electricity distribution grid. In Ontario, the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce was recently awarded a CAN$189,000 grant from The Atmospheric Fund (TAF) to study the recovery of waste heat from Hamilton industry to lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve business competitiveness. In the Bayfront Industrial Area, the ArcelorMittal Dofasco steel mill has already invested over CAN$112 million in an energy recovery project to save the equivalent energy of heating 26,000 homes, planning eventually to recapture enough waste heat to offset 25 percent of its energy bill. TAF provides grants to not-for-profit organizations and municipalities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area for projects that have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions and/or air pollution. 

In January 2019, Enwave Energy Corp. announced a CAN$100 million expansion of its deep lake water cooling system with the support of up to CAN$10 million in federal funding from the Low Carbon Economy Challenge. Deep lake water cooling draws cold water from Lake Ontario to cool hospitals, educational campuses, government buildings, commercial and residential buildings in Toronto’s downtown core. Expanding the district cooling system will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, relieve strain on the electricity and water systems, promote new development, and enhance the city’s resiliency. The Hon. Catherine McKenna, minister of environment and climate change, recently recognized Enwave and other award recipients as part of the CAN$450 million challenge fund to support projects that reduce emissions and generate clean growth. The investment will help Enwave expand the capacity of its deep lake water cooling system and serve sustainable cooling to an additional 2 million sq m of floor space – the equivalent of 40 to 50 buildings. 

The first district cooling system in Africa to use seawater for air conditioning is being developed in the central business district of Port Louis, the capital city of Mauritius Island. With a dense cluster of buildings in a subtropical climate, it is one of the hottest places on the island, and air conditioning is now essential year-round. The island relies heavily on imported fossil fuels for electricity generation, the source of most of the greenhouse gas emissions. Cold seawater from the Indian Ocean will be pumped to a district cooling network in the Port Louis central business district, displacing traditional electric air conditioning and cutting peak power demand by about 26 MW. The project is expected to create 40 direct green jobs and potentially many more indirect jobs in downstream businesses such as aquaculture and pharmaceuticals. It will increase energy security, enhance the reliability of the power supply, save around $5 million per year on fossil imports, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 40 tons of CO2e per year. 

From an economic perspective, district energy systems enable greater use of local resources, reduce import of fossil fuels and enable more efficient primary energy usage. Such systems are recognized for excellent reliability, especially during extreme weather events or grid interruption. If the system is municipally owned, there is potential for incremental revenue to support other public services. Very often, improved local air quality results in lower public health spending and improvements in mortality. District energy systems produce both local and global economic and environmental benefits. IDEA is still awaiting release of the long overdue report to Congress from the U.S. Department of Energy on the U.S. potential for district energy. Until then, we will continue to advocate for more effective policy support from local, state and national governments here in the U.S. As Willie Sutton might say, that’s where the action is.