The 5th edition of DC Dialogue, on June 14, in Dubai, was a platform for soul-searching, with a cross-section of participants clearly articulating their disappointment over the direction district cooling has been taking in the region over the years, and indicating the need for change.
If James Grinnell, Head of Water, Dubai Regulatory Supervisory Bureau, pointed out that building owners don’t see district cooling as a friendly solution and that the time is ripe for change, Dominic Mc Polin, Chief, Central Planning – Central Planning Office, Ministry of Works, Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning, Bahrain, spoke of customers not embracing it over cost, security concerns and consumer protection. George Berbari – CEO, DC PRO Engineering, and author of the book, The Energy Budget – who chaired the conference, spoke of how he was neither happy nor proud of the manner in which district cooling had not kept pace with technological advances, which if applied could lead to optimising the cost of running district cooling plants and, equally important, lead to greater energy savings. If the savings are passed on, he said, it could translate to financial savings for building owners, ensuring their happiness and making district cooling an appealing proposition.
Mc Polin pointed out that a recalibrated approach to district cooling could mean much more than customer satisfaction. Highlighting the manner in which the pandemic has quite crippled the economy the world over and affected the human psyche, he spoke of how district cooling – with its potential for greater energy savings – could help fight COVID-19 and future pandemics.
Saying that science supports an increase in ventilation, which inevitably would see an increase in energy demand, he added that the district cooling industry could be a vital cog in the COVID-recovery efforts.
Berbari, focusing on remedial measures that could shore up the performance of district cooling, pointed out to Denmark and Sweden, two of the participating countries in the conference, as shining examples that had married technology, innovation and policy to optimise cost of operating district cooling plants and to deliver energy savings, which in turn, had lowered greenhouse gas emissions and total cost of ownership.
The GCC region, he said, could derive inspiration from Scandinavia to bring about some much-needed changes to the way district cooling schemes are operated. “Copenhagen will be the first carbon-neutral city in the world,” he said. “We need to keep pushing if we want to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Dubai needs to take leadership in energy also.”
Berbari called for an end to a palpable technological stagnation, and for adoption of newer technologies to lower emissions and total cost of ownership. He called for the use, or increased use, of shallow geothermal as heat sink, deep geothermal energy for extracting valuable thermal energy, and of green hydrogen. Engaging Steve Lemoine, GM & Business Director Middle East, Dalkia, in conversation, he asked if hydrogen could be the answer to energy needs to power district cooling plants.
Lemoine answered in the affirmative, saying that Dalkia is focusing on hydrogen, whereas 10 years ago, it was focusing on solar energy. When questioned that it cost 1,000 euros per kilowatt for electrolysing to be able to operate hydrogen-based technology, Lemoine pointed out to how 10 years ago, solar was not only expensive but also did not quite have the efficiency it is able to boast of today. “We have 2,000 MW through solar in Abu Dhabi, and it is one of the cheapest in the world,” he said. And the efficiency is more. With hydrogen, we are exactly where we were with solar, 10 years ago. I believe hydrogen is competitive.”
Grinnell, while agreeing with Berbari that technology has been quite stagnant, said the energy performance in Dubai has been fairly stable in the last seven years. “Last year, we saw an improvement on energy efficiency,” he said. “The technology has been quite stagnant, and the integration of regulation for energy and water performance will hopefully incentivise service providers even more,” he said.
Grinnell pointed out to the creation of a district cooling association in Dubai in 2020. He spoke of how the association had met 2-3 times and that the most recent meeting was on innovation and on what service providers could do to improve energy efficiency. “New technology is being discussed, and the conversation is starting to happen,” he said.
Nasser Bin Jarsh, CCO, Emicool, joined the discussion on technology by saying that there are two sides to the coin – the product side and the consumer behaviour side. He said a major issue confronting district cooling in the region is the low delta T syndrome and the measure of introducing penalties downstream, which is a bit of a sour spot. He added that it as much upon the building owner to ensure the efficiency of the secondary system to resolve the syndrome.
Grinnell, adding to what Bin Jarsh said, emphasised that while regulation for efficient production of cooling is essential so is it for the secondary system to be operated efficiently. “Regulation recognises those companies that operate the secondary system efficiently,” he said.
Pointing out to the example of New York City, which has made it mandatory for new buildings to report data, Berbari asked if any plans are afoot to do so in the region, as well. Responding to this, Grinnell said Estidama, in Abu Dhabi, and Al Safaat, in Dubai, recognise O&M of buildings. The quality of kit installed and design standards are under purview, he highlighted.
“We are also looking at a buildings rating scheme, which would be voluntary, to begin with,” he said. Adding to this, Bin Jarsh said that reporting on efficiency of buildings is not far away. “Every month, we at Emicool are reporting kWh,” he said. “Putting all of them in one bucket and looking to see a cross-section of building energy use would be amazing!”
Gustaf Landahl, Head of Department, Environment and Health Administration, City of Stockholm, said it is important to work with building owners to bring the load down. A lot can be achieved through controlled buildings or intelligent buildings to improve energy efficiency, he said.
Touching on the subject of pricing, Bin Jarsh said that district cooling in Dubai still faced major difficulties over the costing and tariff structure. He added that Emicool has been looking at taking measures with the view to providing cost-effective solutions to customers. Pointing to the good talking points, he said the UAE has the largest penetration of district cooling in the world and that the industry has been helping the government in providing facilities “with what we have”, as opposed to adding more powergeneration and T&D infrastructure. “We are reaching a sort of maturity with the help of RSB, and we would be looking to share the savings with end-users,” he said.
Sharing of savings would win acceptance among building owners. Landahl alluded to this in a presentation he made after the plenary discussion. In Stockholm, he said, more than 80% of all buildings are connected to district heating. This, he said, did not come about owing to legislation, established in 1981, and which ran its course till 2006. “We took it [legislation] away, because nobody used it,” he said.
Everybody chose to connect in a market way, because it was more affordable to connect to district energy, he said. It was 10% cheaper than boilers, which involved maintenance, investment and the depreciation of equipment, he said, adding that district energy is more robust. “We have 250 kilometres of district cooling pipes, and sometimes these are combining heating and cooling,” he said. “And we have managed without using legislation. More and more people have connected, because they have seen feasibility and practicality and less cost in district energy.”