Dawn of modern district energy

Based on assessment carried out in five cities, the Government of India’s focus on this new technology will redefine the energy paradigm in India

The primary energy demand in our country has escalated from about 450 million tons of oil equivalent (toe) in the year 2000 to about 770 million toe by 2012. One may be aware that the tonne of oil equivalent is nothing but a unit of energy which is defined as the amount of energy released by burning one tonne of crude oil. This is expected to surge to a whopping 1250-1500 million toe by 2030 (as estimated in the Integrated Energy Policy Report). Reasoning to this jump in demand may go to a number of factors, most important of which are increasing incomes and economic growth which lead to greater demand for energy services such as lighting, cooking, space cooling, mobility, industrial production, office automation, etc.

Though several initiatives have been adopted by the Government of India to cater to the rising demand of its citizens; from promoting the use of energy efficient appliances to shifting towards renewable and sustainable energy, India still holds significant potential to control this ever-growing energy demand. One possible way to combat this demand is via development of modern district energy systems in cities. Modern district energy systems supply heating and cooling services using technologies and approaches such as combined heat and power (CHP), thermal storage, heat pumps, and decentralised energy. District energy basically creates synergies between the production and supply of heat, cooling, domestic hot water, and electricity, and can be integrated with municipal systems such as power, sanitation, sewage treatment, transport, and waste.

Modern district energy can reduce primary energy consumption for heating and cooling of urban buildings by an impressive 50 per cent. This powerful technology cuts emissions to achieve global climate goals, reduces pollution resulting to saving lives and health expenditure (especially considering the present scenario where the air quality is hitting a new low every passing day), enables energy storage and renewable connection such as untapped waste heat recovery, and much more. Various studies and research done in the world suggest that modern district energy can prove to be the most effective approach for many cities in transition to sustainable heating and cooling, by improving energy efficiency and enabling higher shares of renewable. Modern district energy has been accepted in countries such as Denmark which has made it the cornerstone of their energy policy to reach their goal of 100 per cent renewable energy, and, similarly, other countries, such as China, are exploring synergies between high levels of wind production and district heating.

At Habitat III in 2016, as a testament to the multiple benefits, 197 nations adopted a New Urban Agenda that recognises 'modern district energy' networks as a key solution to integrating renewable and efficiency in cities. To facilitate the transition to such systems, UN Environment is leading an initiative on District Energy in Cities. The District Energy in Cities Initiative is a multi-stakeholder partnership coordinated by UN Environment, with financial support from Danida, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the Government of Italy. As one of six accelerators of the Sustainable Energy of All (SeforAll) Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform, launched at the Climate Summit in September 2014, the Initiative will support market transformation efforts to shift the heating and cooling sector to energy efficient and renewable energy solutions. The Initiative aims to double the rate of energy efficiency improvements for heating and cooling in buildings by 2030, helping countries meet their climate and sustainable development targets. The Initiative supports local and national governments to build local know-how and implement policies that will accelerate investment in modern – low-carbon and climate resilient – district energy systems. UN Environment (UNEP) is currently providing technical support to cities in seven countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, China, Malaysia, Morocco, Serbia, and India.

Speaking of India, the Central government has already considered District Energy (cooling) system as a cross-cutting technology in the "National Cooling Action Plan" — a vision document to meet the country's rapidly growing cooling needs in a climate-friendly manner prepared by MoEF&CC. Also, district cooling may compliment the Smart Cities Initiative of India as well, by – improving efficiency and the quality of infrastructure, and thus delivering a more sustainable, livable urban environment. In order to kick-start the District Cooling Initiative in India, UNEP has signed an agreement with Energy Efficiency Services Limited (A JV of PSUs under the Ministry of Power) to lead and coordinate the DES-related activities as the National Coordinating Agency till 2020. At present, assessments have been carried out across five cities: Bhopal, Rajkot, Thane, Pune, and Coimbatore, which confirm that cooling large buildings through district cooling networks is more cost-effective and significantly better environmentally. Electricity and CO2 reductions of at least 35 per cent are forecasted as there are significant water and refrigerant reductions. Commercially viable projects have been identified in all five cities and the initiative will now work with these cities to design investable projects and supportive local policies to demonstrate and expand this technology. These cities were cautiously shortlisted after examining high-level project feasibility, policy frameworks, city potential, and benefits of district cooling. For the demonstration of this technology, out of the five assessed cities, Thane city of Maharashtra state has been chosen initially. Here apart from the demonstration, the initiative will also support the development of a long-term policy and investment plan for district cooling, training and study tours. Further, it is not limited to one city as its long-term vision is to realise the benefits of district cooling to the state and national level governments and encourage them to launch it as a national and state policy. EESL's key role will be to identify suitable business models that can rapidly scale-up this technology in India. Technologies such as district energy (cooling) systems, if realised and adopted at an early stage, may provide a significant relief in catering to the mounting cooling demand of the country.

(The author is an engineer and researcher of this new technology. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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