District Energy: The Climate Solution Beneath Our Feet Top Takeaways from IDEA2023

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Christine Williamson
June 14, 2023
District Energy: The Climate Solution Beneath Our Feet Top Takeaways from IDEA2023

The buildings in which we work and live and how we consume energy inside them are some of the main drivers of climate change, and finding ways to lessen their impact on our planet is vital to realizing a decarbonized future. In fact, according to the World Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions.

One group that is actively working to reduce those emissions numbers is our client, the International District Energy Association (IDEA), a trade association for the district energy industry. Last week the Greenough team had the pleasure of attending the IDEA’s 114th annual conference, swapping stories about innovation and decarbonization among representatives from 276 cities and 20 different countries.

So, what is district energy, anyway? And how can it help accelerate the energy transition to reach net zero goals?

The invisible force
District energy is cost-effective, reliable, sustainable and likely the most efficient energy system you’ll never see. It’s literally beneath our feet – the plants and pipes are often housed underground – in major cities, colleges and universities, and hospital campuses. Anywhere you’ll find a “cluster.” The system uses a central plant to deliver heating and cooling to a group of buildings that, in effect, form an “energy district.”

Decarbonization and innovation at IDEA2023
More than 800 people from nearly 300 organizations recently gathered in Chicago for IDEA2023, the International District Energy Association’s annual conference. Attendees included IDEA members and district energy colleagues from around the world, including nearly 300 first-time attendees and a record percentage of women, representing a shared commitment to energy resilience, efficiency, and decarbonization.

During our time at the conference, we had a front-row seat to the latest innovations in district energy, including geothermal and geo-exchange, hydrogen fuel, the future of fusion energy, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital twins in energy optimization, and the possibilities for the use of small modular nuclear reactors and thermal ice storage, among other topics.

Forming a climate coalition
We came away from IDEA2023 with three top takeaways for the future of district energy and how they fit into global climate change mitigation efforts.

First, combatting the climate crisis and realizing our green future will take work and time. Unfortunately, there’s no "silver bullet” – no one technology will get us out of this bind with a snap of the fingers. Instead, it will take a communal effort – bringing together not only our brightest minds but also many different technologies that will all add up and help us reach our collective goal.  For example, tapping into a municipal sewer system with large, district-scale heat pumps is being done right now by IDEA member CenTrio in Denver.   Climate change is a complex problem, and complex problems require complex solutions.

Government funding works
While the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is spurring massive growth in renewables and climate tech in this country, district energy can and should be another tool to help us meet our carbon goals. In Canada, the government, through the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), has committed to invest $600 million (Canadian) to help Enwave Energy Corporation upgrade its district energy systems and increase annual energy production, divert waste from landfills, reduce fuel oil consumption and lower emissions. The expansion of the district energy system enabled connected buildings to reduce their electricity consumption by 80%, carbon emissions by 60%, and greenhouse gas emissions by 67,780 tons annually. The IRA can execute similar projects that have as much of an impact in the USA . However, navigating the IRA can be complicated, and those looking to capitalize on the policy benefits should start early as it can be difficult for the district energy industry to find its place among regulations focused on more visible renewable technologies.

Workforce development is a high priority
For district energy to reach its full potential and help the world decarbonize, it must overcome a few hurdles. One of the biggest challenges is one other industries are facing as well – having a deep bench on the roster. While the industry is heavily invested in recruiting and attracting younger generations to district energy, workforce development is a central focus. Training programs, awareness campaigns, and opportunities to connect with the community are all urgent needs for an industry that, due in large part to the reliability of its systems, has flown under the radar for much of its existence.

The future of district energy
In many ways, district energy has been environmentally responsible for more than one hundred years. And, because of its adaptability, the systems can decarbonize further, more quickly and more cost-effectively than many other forms of energy delivery. The solution is proven and allows for carbon footprint reductions at a scale that would be impossible to achieve on an individual building basis. For example, making changes at just one central plant has far-reaching impact and can lower carbon emissions at more than 200 buildings.

District energy continues to evolve and leverage the latest technological and renewable energy innovations, enabling an entire community to “go green” all at once. At its essence, district energy is the embodiment of the axiom “think globally and act locally” due to its immediate effects to heat and cool local neighborhoods and communities while also offering a lower carbon alternative to traditional heating and cooling that helps the world’s population and the planet as a whole.  This is critically important as the United Nations predicts over 6 billion citizens will inhabit the world’s cities by 2050.

We are proud and excited to highlight that in 2023 alone, IDEA members helped eliminate 1,363,119 tons of CO2e. We look forward to learning more at CampusEnergy2024 in San Francisco and checkout their website for more interesting member news.

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