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Addressing pain points in District Cooling

Ronak Monga, Business Development Manager, HVAC, Grundfos, fleshes out the challenges that consultants, contractors, developers, manufacturers and tenants in the Middle East face in relation to District Cooling, and how regulation, better engineering practices and a holistic approach in the development of District Cooling models can break the existing mindset that serves as a barrier to more efficient and sustainable cooling practices

| | Jun 16, 2019 | 11:47 am
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There are a number of engineering myths in the Middle East that serve as a barrier to greater adoption and more efficient implementation of District Cooling, says Ronak Monga, Business Development Manager, HVAC, Grundfos. The most persistent myth, Monga says, and one that he finds particularly troubling is the misconception that “all pumps are created equal and efficiency above the limit is the same thing”.

District Cooling specifications require a certain level of efficiency, traditionally considered the highest in the market, he says, and common specifications ask for 85% efficiency on the pump. However, he stresses, little or no differentiation is made between a pump that offers 85.2% efficiency and one that offers 89.2% efficiency. “Because the client has approved the specifications, he has to accept both options, but that four per cent difference is not only a huge addition to his bill, it’s also a huge loss to our environment, from an efficiency point of view,” he says, “So, no, not all pumps are equal. Pumps need to run 24/7, 365 days a year. These are mission-critical pumps, so the quality, production process and technology all make a huge difference, especially on efficiency.”

Ronak Monga

Cost aggravating complacency

Monga believes the myth surrounding pumps is one of the many symptoms of a capex-driven approach found at times in the market, where the longterm financial payback of investing in high quality products takes a backseat.

Sharing challenges that manufacturers face in the region, Monga says that when dealing with contractors working against tight budgets, when the company pitches with high-efficiency products, adjustments are asked to be made to meet the budget criteria. Suppliers are then asked to provide products that meet minimum requirements, instead of more efficient products because of the higher price.

This capex-driven mindset is affecting the overall efficiency of District Cooling operations, Monga says, pointing out that stakeholders have a responsibility of encouraging contractors and consultants to focus on energy efficiency, especially in the global move towards more sustainable practices.

As such, Monga puts the spotlight on the valuable role specialised consultants play in ensuring the most efficient design of District Cooling networks, adding that there is a whole scope of consultancy services that focuses on improving design of new as well as existing buildings, largely driven by standards, such as LEED, ASHRAE, and entities such as the US Green Building Council.

However, Monga says that well-meaning manufacturers face the same price pressures, and, thus, a number of building designs continue to get downgraded, as budgets get reduced for the sake of value engineering. “It’s actually de-value engineering,” he says. “Value engineering is where you don’t compromise on your building while improving the quality of the products. We need to turn it around.”

Stringent deadlines leading to poor design and commisioning

In addition to cost, Monga says, time constraints are affecting efficiency of District Cooling plants. Monga points out that for buildings in the Middle East, design to handover typically takes two years, a short period compared to the rest of the world, where a production cycle is typically 7-10 years. “If I am at a site for 7-10 years, I have ownership, and I want to get the best into this building,” he says. “But if my project cycle is two years, and I have 20 projects to design, I want to do it more efficiently. So, we see a lot of copy-and-pasting of specs from all over the world, and sometimes done in a way where you cannot understand if they were written in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, or all three. This is something we work to eradicate in the market.”

Prevalence of outdated specs is a challenge to manufacturers, Monga says, especially since new, innovative and more efficient technology already have a hard time making inroads in the local market. He explains that consultants hesitate to specify such products despite the added benefit they can provide to the project, because they don’t want to monopolise the project towards a particular vendor. This is a source of frustration for Grundfos, he says, given that the company has invested time, money and resources to develop technologies designed to solve existing issues in the market. “It’s like getting penalised for innovation,” he says. “Yes, we may be the only ones that can do this, but if it does it the best, then why not use it?” Monga says that often, manufacturers have to wait for the market to catch up and for consultants to take chances to adopt the product.

Overdesigning is another issue the industry must curb, says Monga, pointing out that many buildings in the region suffer from Low Delta T Syndrome. When buildings sign a contract with a District Cooling provider for a certain tonnage, he explains, the demand may not come into effect with immediate occupancy. If a mall has 300 shops to rent out, but only 250 shops are occupied, the extra cooling for unoccupied shops are now part of overdesign, he says. “We should also realise they did not design the system for 300, they may have designed it for 350 or 400 shops to keep future expansion in mind,” Monga adds. “All of this leads to overdesigning, meaning the day you connect the building, until its running properly, you’re going to get Low Delta T.” Monga says that although there are mitigating strategies that can be implemented through better controls, the first step should be to address the issue during the design stage. “Even if you have a future expansion plan in mind, you should have it thoroughly investigated, whether the plan is going to happen or not,” he says, “because you may end up wasting a lot of money and draining it for all those years, until that plan comes into action. How you design your building up front, how you get those green consultants on board and how early you are doing it is important.”

Monga says time constraints also have a negative impact on the handover stages of the project. “Operating and commissioning engineers already have a hard job,” he says, “and I don’t blame them for the poor commissioning that’s happening today – it is because of the timeline.” Typically, Monga says, there is a strict deadline to hand over an operating building to the client, who eagerly awaits completion of the project to reap the benefits of the investment. “The date of handover doesn’t change, but then there is the date when the contractor is supposed to compete construction and give it to commissioning engineers and operators to get the building into its running state.” Often, Monga says, the date of construction gets pushed back, even though the date of handover remains the same. As such, the commissioning period in the middle is getting squeezed.

Implications for the end-user

Monga says these inefficiencies all cascade to tenants, who are not benefiting from the savings that District Cooling should offer. “There are so many elements,” he says. “District Cooling providers say, ‘My operating cost is too high because of Low Delta T and because energy has become more expensive. I also have a big investment I made upfront into the project’. But at the same time, a lot of users of District Cooling say, ‘My bills are too high, and I’m not happy about that’.”

Monga points out that every building owner handles District Cooling charges in a unique way. Some charge a fixed rate as part of the rent, he says, and in such cases, there is no incentive for the tenant to save energy. “If I live in a rented house where District Cooling has been forced on me, and I have to pay a bill whether I’m there for two days or 20 days, of course I’m going to lose the incentive. However, if my bill fluctuates between AED 500 and 900 a month, based on consumption, I am aware, I can learn and that can be my motivation.”

Admittedly, Monga says, addressing the concerns of the tenant and the District Cooling provider is a balancing act. “I think in this whole transaction between the District Cooling provider and the user of the building, the building owner and the developer need to take an extra step,” he says. “If I am connecting my building to a District Cooling plant, can I give that advantage or part of that advantage to the people that will buy an apartment or live in my building? Also, we need to have some regulations on how we do the billing of these users.”

A balancing act

Monga says regulation is vital to help move the District Cooling industry forward and that the UAE can learn a lot from international case studies, especially from the success stories in Denmark, where District Energy has achieved a penetration of up to 98%. Regulations in Denmark are clear and have been applied and improved over the years, he says, as the country’s commitment to sustainability made it early adopters of sustainable solutions. Additionally, Monga points out that in Denmark, District Heating is privately owned by companies and entities. “If I am living in a house, and I also own the District Energy plant supplying to it, I am motivated to improve both,” he says, “so end-user buy-in is something we should learn from them.”

Monga says another way to encourage adoption in the market is for land departments to give tax breaks to buildings that opt to be connected to District Cooling. “That could be one aspect,” he says, pointing out that in some cities in Denmark, houses that are connected to District Heating can have their registration fees waived. He adds that developers that have the advantage of not having to pay for chiller equipment or their maintenance and of being able to save space, could also pass on savings to the end-user by offering lower rents. “If a building is connected to District Cooling, it could be AED 850 per square foot instead of AED 900 per square foot,” he says.

To encourage best engineering practices in the design and operation of plants, Monga recommends that clients impose a Delta T parameter to consultants and contractors before accepting a building. “If I’m a client, I could tell my consultant and contractor I will not accept the building until it has a Delta T of 8,” he says. “Nobody says that. When I ask clients ‘Why’, they say they are too scared that the consultant and contractor will never deliver, and they will never get their building handed over. Clients have to demand more. But at the same time, clients need to know that the best things take time and cost money, so there is a balancing act that has to be carried out.”

Monga believes that addressing these issues are absolutely crucial in ensuring sustainability of a project, adding that the industry must reflect on how to make District Cooling a solution that is not only imposed and regulated but one that will benefit all stakeholders involved.

Hannah Jo Uy is Assistant Editor at Climate Control Middle East magazine. She may be contacted at hannah@cpi-industry.com

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