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District Energy in a Climate-Uncertain Future

With climate change and its clear and present danger upon us, communities must act to embrace resilient energy infrastructure and prepare for a future in a very uncertain climate. Extreme weather events, like the unprecedented cold weather in the midwestern and southern regions of the United States this past February 2021, and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, have devastated people living in these areas, presented major challenges to the nation’s energy systems, and driven resilience to the forefront of national conversation – not to mention the extensive financial response required to recover from these events.

While pursuing new energy technologies and solutions is critical to our eventual success as a society, we must balance this future-looking approach with an emphasis on strengthening existing infrastructure and cost-effectively protecting citizens and current energy networks. District energy is a proven energy delivery framework that is resilient, affordable, scalable, and already utilized by grids across the country. With underground carbon steel pipes, insulated and encased in concrete, and fed by central energy facilities, district energy is, by its very construction, extremely resilient. It has the added benefit of enabling a rapid shift to renewable sources and other green energy approaches. Based on these key attributes, district energy is a key component of the solution to our climate-uncertain challenges.

What We’re Up Against

Since the 1980s, there has been a significant increase in the number and severity of U.S. power outages due to extreme weather. February’s unprecedented winter outages in Texas are just the latest example. Millions of Texans were without power or heat when about half of Texas’s electricity generation was offline. As a result, fuel supplies were slowed by frozen natural gas lines, some towns had to turn off their water supply, and carbon-monoxide exposure skyrocketed when many Texans turned to home generators to keep the heat and lights on. Last year was a record-setting one for wildfires, with over 10 million acres burned nationwide, leading to $20 billion in costs and damages. A decade ago, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy left much of New York City without electricity for days, in addition to causing flooding that shut down power plants and fuel refineries. 117 people were killed, and 8.5 million Americans were without power.

In addition to severe disruptions of everyday life and threats to the health and welfare of residents, these events are costing Americans dearly. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, climate disasters have cost the United States over $1.875 trillion since 1980. The United States cannot afford to continue to operate such vulnerable utility infrastructure, especially as the situation continues to escalate. Americans are paying in tax dollars, and – more importantly – in lives, every moment that goes by without the prioritization of resilience in our nation’s energy infrastructure.

Many communities have already officially recognized the need to put energy resilience at the very center of civic planning. For example, in 2020, Maryland launched the Resilient Maryland Program to fund innovation around energy resilience and distributed energy resources. The Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance has a specific resilience program in place to protect key infrastructure from the effects of climate change. And last fall, the city of Philadelphia hired its first Chief Resilience Officer; someone whose entire mission is to ensure that the city’s resources can withstand the impacts of climate change.

How District Energy Models Resilience Right Now

While acknowledging the problem is certainly the key first step of progress, and research toward future improvements is more than necessary, what can communities do right now to protect citizens from the climate disasters that are sure to come at an increasing rate? One solution is district energy.

District energy uses a centrally located facility to generate thermal energy – heat, hot water, or chilled water – for a number of nearby buildings that form an “energy district.” Microgrids, such as can be found at colleges, hospitals, airports, and office parks, are examples of district energy arrangements. District energy offers multiple benefits to its users, including freedom from asset ownership and maintenance and corresponding costs, and price stability. Most important to this issue, however, is that district energy provides energy islanding capabilities that offer far greater resilience than broader-reaching conventional utilities.

For example, during Hurricane Sandy, Princeton University relied on its own microgrid, allowing the university to maintain power and resources while the rest of the city was offline. In fact, Princeton was able to offer emergency workers and the general public a place to warm up, charge their phones, and access the internet, since they were not reliant upon the town’s non-functioning energy supply.

How is district energy so resilient? One major factor is that the generation facilities are often located in urban centers, within or nearby to the grids they serve, as opposed to energy needing to be transported over hundreds of miles from a major power plant. These microgrids can then operate autonomously, even if those around them are without resources.

In addition to proximity, many district energy systems are able to ‘blackstart’ – that is, they can restore operations independently without relying on an external source to recover from a shutdown. Because of this ability to island and blackstart, some district energy systems have upwards of 99.99% reliability, making them desirable infrastructure in an increasingly climate-uncertain world. In fact, many major American military facilities, including Fort Bragg and Andrews Air Force Base, operate on district energy systems due to its superior energy resilience and security.

How District Energy Can Contribute to a Greener Future

In addition to helping protect communities from devastating climate events right now, district energy can help pave the way to a greener future, in which global warming is addressed and the effects of climate change limited, to help reduce the number of climate-related disasters to begin with. Here are some key ways district energy helps reduce carbon footprints:

  • Reduces primary energy consumption for heating and cooling by up to 50%
  • Many district systems integrate Combined Heat and Power (CHP), which has an average efficiency of 75%, compared to 50% for traditional generation methods (significantly offsetting carbon emissions that would have been emitted through conventional means)
  • A diversity of buildings (such as commercial buildings with daytime use and residential buildings with more evening use) in a district can lead to waste energy sharing and load balancing
  • Central district energy facilities can be easily switched over to new renewable fuel sources and/or technologies, and all buildings in their networks benefit from the carbon footprint reduction instantly, since they are all connected to the same generation facility

Fortunately, the world is catching on to these benefits. The United Nations launched the District Energy in Cities initiative to encourage urban centers to take advantage of the greening power of district energy to help reduce cities’ carbon footprints and thus their contributions to climate change. Campuses, hospitals, and research facilities around the country are already relying on district energy to both meet current energy security needs and to do their part in working toward a greener future.

It’s not always the case that the technology that can help us stay safe now is the same technology that can help us move systemically in the right direction. In the face of a danger as pressing and dire as climate change, we’re fortunate to have that present and future solution in district energy.