By Tom DeWitte and Tom Coolidge
Utilities are the hidden systems of pipes and wires that make modern life possible. They are critical to the ability of humans to live in increasingly dense urban communities.
Today, many utility industry thought leaders increasingly are wondering “is the future the past?” In the early days of energy being delivered to customers through pipe networks, the energy, gas or steam, was manufactured locally and transported a short distance to local consumers. Over time, in the case of gas, business reasons drove the gas utility industry toward a smaller number of larger utilities. Scale became essential. Achieving scale was made possible through development of a national transmission pipeline system capable of transporting large volumes of gas from distant sources, replacing local production. All the while, locally-produced steam energy continued to be delivered through District Heating and Cooling systems. Now, in many areas, District Heating and Cooling systems are booming, and gas utilities driven by environmental factors are looking anew at local production of bio-methane.
Yet, if you asked the average city dweller to name the utility systems existing in their metropolitan area, they would likely mention, water, sewer, electricity, gas, and phone. But it is unlikely, they would mention District Heating or District Cooling. District Heating and Cooling is the industry that heats and cools many of the university campuses, hospital campuses and core metro buildings around the world. In the United States alone, there reportedly are approximately 660 systems heating and cooling over seven million square feet of building space!
But it is also the utility system that the average city dweller is most likely to be unaware of. It is the Stealth Utility.
The Stealth Utility
Just how prevalent are these stealth utility systems?
-If you went to college in a northerly location, such as Iowa State University or University of Minnesota, your dorms were most likely heated by a district heating system using hot water to heat your room.
- If you went to New York City to see a Broadway play and stayed at a nearby hotel, most likely your hotel room was heated by a district heating system.
-If you visited a European city such as Amsterdam, most likely the hotel you stayed at and the restaurant’s you frequented were heated by district heating.
-If you visited Dubai, your hotel room was most likely cooled by a district cooling system.
-If you are sitting in a major Asian metropolitan community in South Korea, northern Japan, or northern China, it is most likely that your building is heated by a district heating system.
There are literally thousands of these heating and cooling systems around the world. They are so seamlessly integrated into an individual building’s heating or cooling system that most of the building’s occupants have no idea that it is heated or cooled water which is making their dwelling or office so comfortable. Like a military stealth plane, it flies under the radar of most people’s awareness.
What is a District Heating System?
A District Heating system is at its most basic a pipe system carrying heated water to customers. The customers use or extract the heat from the water to heat their homes, drinking water and showers.
Diagram of District Heating System
What is unique about this pipe system compared to other pipe utility systems like water or natural gas, is that the water once shed of its heat returns to the heat plant to be heated again.
What is a District Cooling System?
District Cooling also uses a pipe system carrying water. Except, this time the water being transported has been chilled. When the chilled water reached the customer, it is used to absorb the building’s heat to cool the building.
Diagram of District Cooling System
The now heated water is returned to the cooling plant where it will shed its heat and again be chilled.
District Heating and Cooling systems are considered one of the most efficient methods for providing heating and cooling to an urban community. Having the heat generation and heat dissipation done at a centralized location provides economies of scale that are difficult for individual buildings to achieve.
This is especially true for the cooling of large buildings in a business district. When each building provides its own air conditioning systems, the buildings begin competing against each other. The heat exhaust of one building can generate heat for its neighbors. Those neighboring buildings then must have their air conditioning systems work harder to remove the heat from their buildings.
Heat Exhaust from One Building Heats Its Neighbors
With a District Cooling system, the waste heat can be pumped to the edge of town and removed from the returned water.
It’s Not Poisonous
Another likely reason for District Heating and District Cooling being a stealth utility system is that it is extremely safe. The commodity being transported through the pipe system is water. It is not explosive, or shocking or poisonous. When a District Heat or District Cooling system fails its does not generate the type of news coverage that a large electric power outage or a natural gas explosion would generate. Simply put, these systems generally stay off the front page of the news.
The next time you visit a major metro business district, look around. If you do not see smoke or steam being exhausted from the building, there is a good chance that is because of District Heating and Cooling. This utility system is keeping everyone in the building in stealthy comfort.
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