District energy in cities – key to effective combatting of climate change?

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Paris at the end of last year saw a major push by humanity to formulate an effective strategy aimed at tackling global CO2 emissions; whether it will be seen as the foundation of future success or not could boil down to how the world’s governments develop city power and transport infrastructures.

By 2030, the United Nations predicts that two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities; many of them in megacities – sprawls with ten million inhabitants or more. The number of megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants is expected to grow to over 40 by 2030 from 29 at present.

Cities account for over 70 per cent of global energy use and 40 to 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide so getting the planning on metropolises right could go a long way to achieving the lofty goals set at COP21.

District heating is one of the cheapest means of exploiting the potential of energy efficiency. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the Global District Energy in Cities Initiative at the New York Climate Summit in September 2014.

Shanghai megacity skyline
The initiative supports national and municipal governments in their efforts to develop, retrofit or scale up district energy systems, with backing from international and financial partners and the private sector. The initiative brings together cities, academia, technology providers and financial institutions in a joint ambition to build the necessary capacity and transfer of know-how while engaging all stakeholders and reducing emissions.

To inform what would become the aforementioned initiative UNEP surveyed low-carbon cities worldwide and in a follow up report revealed district energy systems as a key factor in attaining positive results for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to UNEP, ‘District energy systems emerged as a best practice approach for providing a local, affordable and sustainable energy supply, improve energy efficiency and support energy access efforts. They represented a significant opportunity for countries and cities around the world to move towards climate-resilient, resource-efficient and low-carbon pathways.’

Some cities have more obstacles to overcome than others in facilitating heat networks.

While cities like Copenhagen do more to facilitate the use of their district heat networks, by in effect making it compulsory for any new building to be connected to it, the Greater London Authority, for example must work within a liberalised energy market, with no such legislative help.

COSPP, shortly to become Decentralized Energy, hope to have a summary in the coming weeks of how the initiative is performing in what was its first full year of operation in 2015, and are awaiting a response from the UNEP team.

Smart technology will go hand in hand with the deployment of district energy systems and it will be interesting to note just how quickly the Earth’s cities are adapting to the need for smart devices in connecting electricity, transportation and storage operations. Stay tuned.

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