The clank of boilers is a telltale winter soundtrack in many older cities in more temperate zones, where many buildings tend to have their own own heating and cooling system. But in downtowns and dense neighborhoods, smart decisions made decades ago and current retrofitting strategies are generating warm and cool air in a central location, then piping this to a connected network of buildings.
District energy originated with the ancient Romans and was advanced by Thomas Edison—district energy is underappreciated in the United States. It is growing—at present, there are approximately 2,500 systems operating in all 50 states—but not at the pace it is elsewhere. In the Middle East and across Europe and Scandinavia in particular, district energy is extremely popular. It also addresses one of the toughest nuts to crack: half of the world’s energy is either used as heat by industry to make the products of modern life or used to heat buildings, according to the International Energy Agency. And three-quarters of that building heat is supplied by fossil fuels or other nonrenewable sources.
In 2013, in an investigation of low carbon cities worldwide, district energy systems emerged as a best practice approach for providing a local, affordable and low-carbon energy supply. District energy represents a significant opportunity for cities to move towards climate-resilient, resource-efficient and low-carbon pathways.
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