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An iPod among vinyl albums

Saying that District Cooling simplifies the building dramatically, Rob Thornton, President and CEO, International District Energy Association (IDEA), in this interview with Surendar Balakrishnan of Climate Control Middle East, urges a nuanced understanding of what the cooling approach can offer. Excerpts from the interview, about a month prior to the 8th IDEA International District Cooling Conference and Tradeshow from December 9 to 11, in Dubai.

| | Dec 4, 2018 | 3:25 pm
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Rob Thornton, President and CEO, IDEA

Could you please share details of the December conference and what delegates may expect from it?
District Energy has risen in terms of visibility and potential and as a solution for urbanisation, population density and energy intensity. The world is moving to cities, and cities represent majority of emissions and energy density, and it’s not going to get easier. One of the things we need to do is to help planners, mayors, utilities and people who either have the authority or policy sway over infrastructure. We need to help them understand how District Cooling fits in that equation.
We want to bring real-world solutions and tangible operating cases to the fore during the conference, so people can understand District Cooling better and have access to people with real experience of very efficient District Energy solutions. I am really pleased with the quality of participation in the conference, with speakers coming in from Saudi Arabia, Denmark, France and a really high-quality cross-section of US participants.
They are coming to share. It is not about selling a product or promoting a technology, necessarily. It feels like we have once again been able to organise and curate a group of people, who care about helping others learn from their experience, so the next systems reflect the next generation of technologies.
One thing we are doing is a masterclass on microgrids. We know electricity grids are very, very robust, but at the same time there is an opportunity for microgrids, if you have a campus or healthcare city or hospital or energy-dense application.
Ted Borer at Princeton University operates a gas turbine on campus. The profile includes 15MW of onsite generation, chilled water thermal energy storage, 4.6 MW of photovoltaic farm and hybrid chillers. The university has a very advanced and interactive control platform. The work he does is relative to the energy needs of the campus, the grid conditions, tomorrow’s weather forecast and the corresponding load. All these help Princeton optimise its system.
Princeton came into prominence during the time of Superstorm Sandy, in October 2012, when 8.1 million people were without power. The university was able to maintain operations. The campus is home to ice cores over 100 years old. Broadly, it is a research campus. It also became an area of refuge for people during the storm. It was a place where rescue personnel could take a shower and recharge their phones.
Now, a hurricane of that magnitude is not likely to happen in the Middle East, but the region might have other needs. So, how do you design your system to make it resilient, if the grid is impaired? How quickly can you bounce back and maintain services, be it to take care of patients in hospitals or data for financial powerhouses? Or, it could be cancer research. The story Ted can convey has to do with how to integrate all of these assets. People who have energy and business-continuity response are very interested in the microgrid model. We are not suggesting that the utilities in the UAE or Saudi Arabia should just change their operating paradigm and just support microgrid. We are just trying to provide expertise; if people are building healthcare facilities, they can draw from this. So, we are pleased that Ted will be participating in the conference. He has conducted masterclasses in Singapore and across North America, and we do believe utilities a few years ago were not keen on having microgrids but want to own them now, so there has been a sort of paradigm shift. Many of the large utilities are saying this makes a lot of sense, so rather than fight them, why don’t we operate microgrid solutions? Additionally, one of the things we have seen in North America, especially in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, is that mayors want microgrids. CEOs of finance companies want microgrids, and certainly institutions like Harvard, MIT and Princeton want them. Ted will focus on technology, operations-related optimisation and emergency preparedness.

Are you satisfied with the uptake of District Energy systems around the world?
There are District Cooling systems across cities across North America, and we find that adoption and market penetration vary from city to city. Sometimes, we have slower uptake for whatever reason, but by and large, we are seeing acceptance. Since 1990, we have built about 50 new District Cooling systems in cities, not to mention in colleges and university campuses. So, I think part of the challenge is education and down-streaming the benefits of District Energy to the end users.
One of the challenges is that not all the value of being a District Cooling customer shows up in the utility bill. Things like space savings in buildings, being able to precool the building, not having a chiller bank and creating rooftop space, electrical vault sizing, lack of chemicals in the buildings. So, it is like the five senses. It is not just the see or the touch but the smell and the hearing, and they flow to certain participants in the value chain. The building owner and the architect gets design advantage and leasable space advantage, and that might not flow directly to the tenant. And that’s part of the problem – that the pie gets sliced in a number of ways, and not all the slices go to every participant. And that is an education and awareness. And frankly, part of the challenge is that the tenant or the consumer of cooling may say: ‘Well, it is great District Cooling reduces CO2 emissions, and that it makes the grid more reliable because of thermal energy storage. It is great we are not putting a huge demand on the wires, and it is using treated sewage effluent and not potable water, but I don’t get that benefit directly.’ And so, it is a value discussion. And it’s a little bit like voting, but there is a sort of important component to District Cooling. It may be slightly higher in cost, but by being a user of District Cooling, you are really creating real value streams in the community. Those value streams in college campuses stay within the fence. The end-user gets efficiency benefits, demand-response benefits and water savings in a homogenous community.
I am not saying people should be self-motivated, but there is a responsibility for us as an industry to both communicate and, where we can, to quantify those benefits, so people can see them and say, ‘Okay, there are all these benefits I am glad are happening and my community is better off having District Cooling than not.’
The value stream – economical or environmental – are challenging to quantify, and they don’t get specifically allocated to the people that are paying the bill. And to be honest, there is a whole industry of HVAC, and I have been in the District Cooling field for 32 years. When District Cooling wins, some people lose, and when you take the chiller plants out of 70 buildings, someone is not selling valves or chillers, so there is a whole industry that looks at District Cooling as a displacement technology. People who are technicians who maintain chillers, that’s what happens – it can be very disruptive, and I am not surprised at this pushback, because I have seen the same with District Heating. So, what happens with District Cooling is that we make buildings easier to design, we take the responsibility for some of the mechanical and electrical processes – the design costs, etc. And the fees of consulting firms is part of the capital costs of buildings, so when you simplify the building dramatically, it is like having a shelf full of vinyl albums
and turntable, and District Cooling is like an iPod. Everything is easy to operate.
District Cooling has its place. It is not necessarily the right solution, but when you have density, there is scale, where you aggregate a variety of loads and diversity of customers. The market is on a slower build. District Cooling can work, but it is important that the investment needs to be timed and matched and relatively is kind of coincident with market growth. I know there have been instances where the District Cooling system has preceded build-out or occupancy in some settings, and there is a variety of causes of effects, but that is also the Best Practices we have to share. Empower has done quite well on that front. They have not built capacity far in advance of customer needs.
That was certainly an issue in the early days, but I think there has been a kind of recognition of the importance of District Cooling. You need to manage the time effectively for all stakeholders.

Based on feedback we have received from people we have interviewed on several occasions, one of the persistent topics of interest has to do with how utilities can pass on savings they achieve to building owners and tenants. And manufacturers we interviewed spoke of how reliability, energy efficiency and optimal use of water often did not have to do with the technologies available but how they were installed in a project. One manufacturer, for instance, spoke of how hydronic balancing, an issue that keeps popping up in conversations in the region, has less to do with the equipment than it has to with the manner in which the reticulation network is laid out. The manufacturer spoke of how the lack of well-qualified, specialised MEP contractors was perhaps impacting reliability of supply of chilled water. A cross-section of MEP consultants and MEP contractors we spoke to said the market perhaps needs regulation and proper enforcement mechanisms to ensure the right people handle critical and specialised projects. Your thoughts on this?
We have a panel discussion in the opening segment, and I will ask the moderator to cover that. The impact on managing supply and performance in an extended network has evolved. When I started in 1987, we had a chilled water network in Hartford, Connecticut. And all the buildings were directly connected, and the chilled water flowed directly through the buildings, and that was the design at the time, not primary or secondary circuits. How you operate is maintain a static pressure. It is like your blood pressure – systolic and diastolic – and you keep that, and as load increases, the flow rate can increase. Early on, there were circumstances, where some buildings were over-pumping, and it was causing imbalance. And in the course of design and remediation, we put in controls and monitoring points, and the farthest building was three miles away.
As I said, this was in 1987, much before a lot of the technology we have now, and at that time, we maintained the positive differential pressure at point, and that meant the rest of the building had positive pressure. And today, if we look at what Empower has – a command control centre – they are not just monitoring, they can control the conditions, they are aware of the conditions not only at the farthest point. So, if a valve is stuck, the technology and modelling and platforms now give us real-time insights into the condition and not only control the valve. We can tell how much blood is flowing to the brain. It doesn’t mean everyone has to make the kind of investment Empower has made. And people in the industry are quite jealous of that, and people from the US came away from a visit to the Empower plant saying, ‘Wow, I wish I had that!’

The real truth is that technology has brought costs down to enable operations and best practices. They reside in IDEA. Companies and people and professions are doing continuous learning and are really attending to emerging best practices. But not everybody is in the room, not everybody is a member. So, when people are operating and designing a District Cooling system, they may not have had the benefit of asking people of our association. Our reputation is only as good as their performance, so even though they are not participating in the adaptive continuous learning that IDEA tries to provides, we are accountable for their reputation, by default. And that’s why we have these conferences and why we invite people. I am not saying we know everything, but 2,400 members within there are people with experience and are happy to share it. Juan Ontiveros has done remarkable things at campus (at The University of Texas at Austin), and he is an example of an IDEA member, whose door is open. So, if you have a
problem with water quality or differential pressure, you have IDEA members that say: ‘I had that problem, too, and we tried this, and it did not work. And then, we tried this, and it worked.’ If you want to save time and money, you can reach out to IDEA. And that is what IDEA is about.


Surendar Balakrishnan is the Editor of Climate Control Middle East magazine, and Co-Founder and Editorial Director of CPI Industry. He may be contacted at surendar@cpi-industry.com

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