District Cooling – Driving efficiency and sustainability in the GCC
More recently, district cooling has emerged as a more efficient and cheaper method, but also one which reduces the environmental impact, says Mohamed Youssef, Senior Vice-President, Infrastructure, Middle East & Africa
In line with global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the GCC has as large a role to play in meeting this challenge as anywhere in the world, and its climate makes it ideally equipped to do so. A region blessed with so much sunlight is well suited to generating a considerable amount of its electricity from solar plants and significant efforts have been made in this area; but this same sunlight obviously creates the need to keep its people and infrastructure cool, especially with exponential population growth and rapid urbanization following the discovery of its oil reserves.
Electrification of the region originally enabled air conditioning to be adopted as the preferred cooling solution, replacing traditional methods that had been in place for thousands of years. More recently, district cooling has emerged as a more efficient and cheaper method, but also one which reduces the environmental impact. When you bear in mind that 50% of annual energy consumption and 70% of peak electricity is used for cooling (according to a report published by the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University in January 2019) , it has clearly become an irreplaceable component of social and economic planning.
District cooling is far more efficient and reliable; plants can operate for twice as long as air conditioning systems (30 years as opposed to 15 years), and as its name suggests, district cooling plants not only can cover much larger numbers of buildings, they can be located in remote areas, freeing up land more suitable for development, thus enhancing commercial value. It should be noted that efficiencies from district cooling only kick in when the cooling density cut-off is exceeded, which is calculated with reference to the number of people and buildings in any particular area. Areas that fall below that level are where there are not enough buildings or people for the cost of installation and operation to be lower than standard air conditioning.
As the region's existing cities expand and whole new ones are built, demand for district cooling is set to increase. According to the Abu Dhabi Department of Energy (DoE), district cooling systems have less environmental impact when it comes to air conditioning; they reduce energy consumption by up to 40% more than the best conventional cooling system available, all while having low CO2 emission levels. Total district cooling demand in the GCC in 2010 was 36 million Refrigeration Tones (RT). By 2030, consulting firm Booz & Co estimate that it will rise almost threefold to 100 million RT, as populations and economies continue to grow, industrialize and diversify.
Having said that, this expansion will not be without its challenges. Collaboration between governments, urban planners and developers is key to ensure that plants are installed in the right places, at the right time, in the right way and at the right price. Undertaking and meeting the performance and delivery risks are key drivers in the timely availability of a plant and its operational efficiency. A badly designed plant with improper selection of equipment, higher utility consumption, poor installation techniques and inefficient use of space can mean increased costs for the developer and operator, and ultimately the end user.
Another key challenge that district cooling operators in the GCC face is shortage of potable water supplies. As an alternative, treated sewage effluent (TSE) can be used in district cooling as a source for cooling water make up, which enhances the sustainability of resources by recycling sewage water to replace potable water. According to Tabreed, TSE can achieve up to 35% savings as opposed to conventional potable water systems depending on the quality of supplied TSE.
Regulation will also be a key factor, to ensure that the dynamics of the supply and demand of the two basic ingredients of district cooling - electricity and water - are properly managed so that cooling costs remain affordable and the environment is protected. Steps are already being taken in this direction. This year, Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council approved regulations for district cooling, making Abu Dhabi the first government in the MENA region to pass an integrated regulatory framework for District Cooling. The new regulations aim to unify standards, integrate efforts to regulate the sector, ensure the highest quality and competitiveness for energy services, and protect consumer rights. The regulations also include clauses to enhance energy efficiency, protect the environment, and encourage investment in the sector.
A more coordinated approach to planning will also produce more realistic forecasting and better management of capacity, which can mitigate against adverse knock on effects on electricity tariffs and pricing. For example, SNC-Lavalin works closely with clients to guide district cooling operators over the technical and operational processes by leveraging digital solutions such as augmented reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence analytics to enhance equipment uptime and improve plant performance. SNC-Lavalin also deploys advanced document management systems to accelerate schedule approvals and reduce engineering and construction man hours. Virtual reality and building information modelling applications are used to facilitate immersive design review, enhance client engagement and eliminate clashes during design stage, this in turn will ensure timely completion of works and avoid unexpected delays during construction.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that district cooling is an essential part of the continued development of the region's growing urban infrastructure. However, it is equally essential that to extract maximum value and deliver the greatest efficiencies and cost benefits, industry key stakeholders need to engage more effectively. Only through a collaborative approach will it be able to capitalise on existing opportunities and harness digital technologies to navigate the increasing environmental challenges, enhance business efficiencies and deliver long term practical and economically sound solutions.