Spiraling energy costs and toxic carbon emissions are two factors driving demand for clean, efficient heating and cooling systems. Little-known outside the power generation industry, a technology called district energy is transforming offices and other public buildings.
What is district energy?
By definition, if a single energy source serves more than one building, it is a district energy system. The definition may be simple, but the execution of the details is complicated.
A district energy system has three major components:
- A thermal-energy-generating plant.
- A distribution system (piping).
- Building interconnections (e.g., meters, valves, pumps), are often referred to as energy-transfer stations.
Thermal energy typically is in the form of steam, hot water, and chilled water delivered at temperatures and pressures suitable for use by interconnected buildings’ heating and cooling systems. Energy is generated using boilers and chillers. Also available are more sophisticated, efficient, and sustainable means, such as combined heat and power (CHP), biomass, heat pumps, solar thermal energy, and geothermal energy.
Without data, you're just a person with an opinion
When energy is sent to several locations simultaneously from one generation source, it is essential to have cybersecure transmission of billing and other data. It is not feasible for the utility to send someone in person to collect this data. Remote transmission becomes essential. Embedding artificial intelligence in devices connected to the flow monitor not only enables data collection, but detects and alerts utilities to gaps in transmission. Detecting and fixing data gaps quickly gives greater ease with regulatory compliance, and provides faster detection of maintenance problems. Infrastructure lasts longer when predictive maintenance is performed, but those repairs are only possible with accurate, timely data.
Why is district energy not more prevalent in the US?
With so much support and so many quantifiable benefits, why is district energy not yet implemented everywhere in the United States?
- First, despite life-cycle economics equivalent to those of self-generated heating and cooling plants, district energy systems have longer paybacks.
- Second, most building owners do not know the actual costs of heating and cooling their buildings.
- Third, despite a great deal of discussion in Congress, there is not a well-defined energy policy.
It's not a question of if, but when, utilities will be forced to upgrade their infrastructure, making it smarter infrastructure, not just bigger. Sustainability is no longer the exclusive buzzword of ecowarriors, but also a expense for utilities to discuss. Utilities that already sell district energy claim that their cutting carbon emissions is equivalent to removing thousands of cars from the road. Keeping a bulk of the heating & cooling equipment off premises is attractive to real estate developers who can build smaller buildings to hold the same number of workers. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals push for better air quality through lower carbon emissions. These UN guidelines, while not legally binding, are influential.
For more background on this topic, look here:
This technology is used in a variety of public buildings such as offices and college campuses. For a more complete list, look here: USA District Energy Map
A short video on achieving low-carbon communities through district energy is here: Low carbon communities & district energy