Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week: Why district cooling has a major role to play in an energy efficient future

Adoption of the technology has been growing quickly, but global take-up still remains fairly limited

Space cooling accounts for 15 per cent of peak residential electricity demand - a figure than can climb as high as 70 per cent in hotter countries. Image courtesy of Tabreed.
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This column is part of a series of exclusive insights ahead of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, being held from January 11-18, 2020.

One major topic that often goes unnoticed in the global debate around climate change is the critical role of efficient space cooling solutions in lowering energy consumption and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Driven by population increase, urbanisation, economic growth and improvement in living standards, global demand for cooling has been growing significantly in the last couple of decades. Energy use for space cooling in buildings has more than tripled since 1990, making space cooling the fastest growing energy use in buildings, and leading to a steep increase in C02 emissions, up to 1,130 million tonnes globally — a major environmental impact.

Moreover, with space cooling now representing around 15 per cent of peak residential electricity demand — and up to 70 per cent in hotter countries such as in the Middle East — the rising demand for cooling significantly drives up the overall cost of generating and distributing electricity.

As global economic growth continues to shift south, to mostly hotter and under-equipped emerging countries, space cooling demand — and its environmental and economic impacts — will continue to soar.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates, in its baseline scenario, that the energy use of space cooling will more than triple by 2050, up to more than 6,000 terrawatts per hour each year, becoming the second-strongest driver in overall electricity demand growth. Similarly, the share of cooling in peak demand will continue to rise sharply, in particular in hotter countries, requiring expensive investments in peak generation and distribution capacity.

Strong and well-co-ordinated policy action is required to mitigate these impacts, in particular though the promotion and advancement of energy efficient equipment and solutions.

With energy consumption 20 to 30 per cent below that of the most efficient conventional cooling solutions, and 60 to 80 per cent below that of the average conventional cooling systems, district cooling has a major role to play in tackling this global challenge.

While district cooling has been growing steadily, its penetration (and that of other similar centralised air- and water-cooled chiller technology) has remained limited: around 2 per cent globally, and at most around 20 per cent in the most advanced market globally — the GCC.

A number of avenues are available to policymakers to further advance these efficient technologies. These include ensuring a proper co-ordination between urban planning and infrastructure development, including the mandating of district cooling where economically relevant (i.e. higher density areas).

This was a key topic of discussion at the most recent United Nations Climate Action Summit, led by members of the Cool Coalition, a global network connecting over 80 partners from government, cities, private sector, finance, academia and civil society organisations. The coalition was set up in April 2019, and has been working since to expand access to cooling while reducing its climate impact.

During the summit, members of the coalition announced major new commitments on efficient, climate-friendly cooling which will make a huge positive impact on climate change, help achieve sustainable development and save trillions of dollars.

In addition to the coalition’s efforts and those of individual nations, policymakers around the world should also leverage existing district cooling infrastructure, through retrofitting programmes that connect old building stocks with low-efficiency cooling systems to existing networks, as well as promote district cooling with private and public sectors stakeholders and raise awareness of its many benefits.

These benefits and the overall importance of increasing the adoption of district cooling internationally, were highlighted during the 25th UN Climate Change Conference which took place in Madrid at the end of last year. Energy efficiency and sustainable development will also be at the heart of discussions at the coming Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW), taking place from 11-18 January, 2020.

We are only too familiar with the very real impacts of rising emissions - from unpredictable changes in weather patterns to the degradation of natural ecosystems. Hence, Tabreed will be taking an active role in this debate to highlight the challenges of soaring energy demand related to space cooling and the solutions district cooling can offer.

Bader Al Lamki is the chief executive of Tabreed