UN initiative seeks to bring district energy into the mainstream

Date: 9 February 2016

By Diarmaid Williams, International Digital Editor, COSPP:

District energy has, for various reasons, been neglected as a technology with the potential to combat climate change.

That was acknowledged by Djaheezah Subratty, head of policy, Energy, Climate and Technology at the United Nations Environmental Programme this week when she spoke to Decentralized Energy about how the UN’S District Energy in Cities initiative is attempting to give the district heating and cooling industries the platform they deserve.

A long-known yet still underestimated hindrance for the sector is its intangibility; investors and policymakers are more interested in the obvious visibility offered by a wind farm, for example.

“This applies to energy efficiency as a whole – what you can’t see has been seen for a long time as not important enough and that is the case for all energy efficient innovations,” says Subratty.

“Saving energy has been treated for a long time as a bit of an orphan.”

Despite that seemingly perpetual hurdle, district energy has been quietly building up strength and credibility over time, up to a point where the US and European nations in particular have signalled out how essential it is to delivering decarbonisation targets.

“It has taken quite a bit of time for the content to reach the level it is now, where it is acknowledged formally that this is going to be a terrific area for action. I think the Sustainability for All action plan initiative has helped to bring it from a technical understanding to a more political and higher general awareness.”

The Sustainability for All, Global Efficiency Accelerator Platform is a key reference. Cities are of course responsible for the bulk of emissions associated with humanity, and the District Energy in Cities initiative originated from that UN drive to promote a more sustainable environment, a recognition of the vast amounts of energy lost through heating and cooling in human-oriented processes.

UNEP’s chief adviser on the project, Lily Riahi, elaborated on the problems that have delayed district energy from taking its place on the rostrum of solutions chosen to counter climate change.

“The sector in general has not been paid attention to in climate and energy discussions. With renewables and energy efficiency we tend to look to the power sector; the heating and cooling and transports sectors are often lagging behind.”

One of the issues traditionally working against the technology, which might now turn out to be in its favour is how it is measured.

“There has been problems with accounting, keeping tracking on heating and cooling demand in cities. A lot of the time cities don’t know how much impact their cooling is having on the power grid – those things are not always separated that easily.”

Riahi likens the holistic approach needed when strategizing for district energy to Lego, where you have various pieces that are plugging in (to the overall whole).

“What we have now is more of a systems approach – that’s really hard to get your head around and it’s not as simple as having one big power plant. It’s an orchestrated approach and requires working across multiple sectors with multiple stakeholders and thinking in a different way about energy use. Because it’s new to many it takes time.”

2015 was the first full year in existence for the initiative, having been launched in September 2014 at the UN Climate Summit. UNEP and UN Habitat are working together on the programme, along with various regionally specific networks and industrial associations such as Euroheat and Power and the International District Energy Association.

Champion or mentor cities, usually cities in developed countries with advanced district energy systems from a technical and a financial point of view show the way as examples for what is referred to as ‘learner cites’, from primarily developing nations striving to emulate them.

“It’s about leveraging the expertise of multiple actors; no one actor is going to unlock district energy potential. Governments have a core role to play in championing it but it requires the involvement of other actors as well depending on the local context.”

“London is a particularly good example, while although new, with not yet a lot of underground piping, it’s done a great job in structuring, attracting investment, creating a delivery unit with multiple stakeholders, building awareness among the various building owners and developers and the different actors on the supply chain.”

Pioneers such as Vancouver takes a grand holistic view before allowing a development to proceed, bringing all components together from the beginning to maximise and optimise energy efficiency and local resource use, while Amsterdam has integrated energy planning into area development.

UNEP provides a comprehensive support to cities who are engaged in building their district energy capability, providing capacity building, performing technical assessments, and collaborating with the various local stakeholders, local and national governments.

“We do an identification for stakeholder mapping in the cities, identifying all relevant parties,” says Subratty. “We then assist them in reaching a stage where they can submit project proposals for funding, focus on pilot demonstration cities and then actual pipe-laying.”

The advisory and support available may be first class but the process still appears relatively complex compared to the vision required for a conventional power plant. Subratty returns again to the main challenge.

“One of our objectives will remain the demystification of district energy. When we started working on this and performing surveys for the initial report it was very apparent that there was a lot of misunderstanding. Some thought district energy was only about district heating.”

“District energy was very poorly known although in commercial use for decades. A perception also persists that it was just a rich country thing and the benefits were not well understood. There are a lot of misconceptions and people are reluctant to engage with something they don’t understand but you can say that about anything, not just energy. The more people understand the benefits but also the limitations they will feel more comfortable exploring the ideas involved and considering it as part of the decision making process.”