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Like a large subterranean snake

Below the surface of Singapore lies the future of keeping cool, says Masato Hinouchi

| | Sep 30, 2020 | 1:33 pm
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When you flick the switch on a typical air conditioning unit, you are setting off a process that has not traditionally boasted green credentials.

Conventional cooling devices account for as much as 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Bank. It predicts that, if left unchecked, emissions from cooling will double by 2030.

Cooling’s potential impact on the environment grows even starker over the longer term, as temperatures in cities that we currently regard as extreme potentially become the norm within 30 years. Indeed, last year, many parts of the world experienced record-high temperatures, with the global average number of cooling degree days 15% higher than in 2000.

This will mean a global increase in demand, and in regions not normally associated with air conditioning, such as northern Europe.

However, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that the majority of demand growth will come from emerging economies, particularly in Southeast Asia. The region, where currently only 15% of the population has access to air conditioning, is predicted to see “skyrocketing” sales of units over the next 20 years. This will be driven by rising incomes, access to electricity and increasing prosperity, making air conditioning more affordable for more people across South East Asia. Finding an effective way to sustainably keep the region cool is, therefore, critical, and some cities may have found the answer – district cooling.

“Secret weapon” in the battle against climate change
As one of the hottest and most humid countries in the world, Singapore is heavily reliant on year-round air conditioning. With so many office and residential buildings relying on traditional cooling units, which emit large amounts of heat, it is no wonder the city is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The United Nations calls district cooling a “secret weapon” in the ongoing battle against climate change, so effective is its power to achieve sustainable cooling on a grand scale.

Singapore’s well known Marina Bay financial district, offices, shops, restaurants, and hotels are all kept cool by a single source: The world’s largest underground district cooling system.

Based around a central subterranean plant, the system channels water along five kilometres of closed-loop pipe network, giving it the power to lower temperatures across a substantial neighbourhood.

Driving the whole chilling process are Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group’s centrifugal chillers. The largest chiller units measure around 12 metres in length, six metres in height and width, and weigh more than 160 metric tons; each chiller unit has a cooling capacity equivalent to approximately 3,600 residential air conditioning units. This vast capacity gives them an economy of scale that makes them much more efficient than individual domestic units: they are able to generate six times the amount of thermal energy from each unit of electricity.

The Marina Bay district cooling system uses a total of 16 of these centrifugal chillers, including one that can operate in two ways – as well as using chilled water, the unit can be switched to ice-making mode. This turns it into a massive ice storage tank, making ice during off-peak times, when the cost of electricity is much lower, such as at night.

Throughout the day, warm water that has sucked the heat from Singapore’s many buildings flows back over the ice, which cools the water, before it returns to the buildings again. Matching production to demand in this way further boosts the Marina Bay system’s energy and cost efficiency.

Cost-effective chilling
As well as being more environmentally friendly, district cooling systems are cost-effective. It is cheaper to chill many buildings together than each one individually: In Marina Bay, it is estimated that the system cuts energy demand for cooling by 40% – the equivalent energy usage of 24,000 apartments in the city-state.

Capital costs for district cooling systems are much lower, too, as there is no need for individual chillers or cooling towers, plus maintenance costs are pooled.

Being buried underground also has the significant social side-benefit of freeing up precious roof space in densely populated cities, where amenity space is low in availability and highly sought after.

As the vast potential of district cooling and its role in achieving multiple socio-economic and environmental goals continues to be revealed, cities around the world are waking up to the benefits.

People will always want to cool down in hot climates – district cooling offers them a far more sustainable way to do it.


The writer is designated Deputy General Manager (from October 1, 2020), Middle East Office, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd.



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