As the cost and environmental impact of air conditioning continues to increase, district cooling systems are becoming increasingly popular as a suitable solution for efficient cooling at scale.

But how practical are district cooling systems for existing cities, what are some of the barriers to entry and how will this opportunity develop in the future?

In this episode of the Cities of Tomorrow podcast, Matt Rickard speaks to Anh-Hà de Foucauld, Head of District Cooling and Heating in Asia Pacific at ENGIE to find out.

WATCH – You can also watch the recording of the episode here: Cities of Tomorrow with Anh-Hà de Foucauld – in the studio


What is district cooling, how does it work and how energy efficient is it?

In simple terms, district cooling is a way of producing chilled water in a power plant. This chilled water is distributed to nearby facilities through a network of underground insulated pipes to provide efficient air conditioning to a cluster of buildings. Energy storage systems can also help balance the production and consumption of chilled water with power plants and networks monitored 24/7 from a control room.


How much more energy efficient is district cooling compared to air conditioning?

In comparison to conventional production means of air conditioning, district cooling systems are more efficient and generate significant savings in the form of reduced expenditure, energy, and operating costs.

In terms of efficiency, district cooling can be up to 30% more energy efficient than standalone systems, and cost savings results from the economies of scale created by aggregating the cooling needs of multiple buildings. Additionally, some capital expenditure costs can be avoided by reducing the capacity of chillers and freeing up valuable space on rooftops and in basements, where traditional cooling equipment is usually stored.

Traditional air conditioning systems usually use up to 70% of the electricity in a building during peak hours whilst district cooling systems enable a switch to thermal energy storage during these times. This thermal energy comes from chilled water tanks that can be filled during off-peak periods and then used to produce air conditioning during peak periods during the day.


How practical is district cooling to readily build cities?

District cooling is actually viable for both existing cities and new developments. For existing cities, district cooling plants can be integrated into existing building, with their networks buried underground to connect multiple buildings together. This presents a big opportunity, as customer needs can be assessed to design more efficient solutions for meeting their air conditioning needs.

Find out more about ENGIE’s Northgate district cooling system project

For new developments, the challenges of district cooling are different as there are fewer barriers to construction since the area is not yet built up, but it’s important for businesses to size up their district cooling networks for final development.

Also, there is no minimum scale to initiating a district cooling system.

Find out more about ENGIE’s Megajana district cooling system project


What does the future of cooling systems look like for Southeast Asia?

This depends on the maturity of the country to support developments. Infrastructure projects need to be integrated with master plans and aligned with multiple stakeholders’ individual needs in order to make it happen. Even if there are different levels of maturity within Southeast Asia and the APAC region, there’s clearly favourable trends. More government entities and private sectors are encouraging the development of district cooling systems, and when aligned with the maturity of countries there is definitely potential here. For example, in Malaysia, developers are benefiting from a good awareness of district cooling systems as it’s a well-known solution with good incentives such as favourable electricity tariffs.


How ready are developers and governments for rolling out district cooling systems?

In Singapore, government bodies are in favour of district cooling systems, and more tenders are going through public counterparts who are asking developers to be connected to such systems.

Find out more about ENGIE’s Punggol district cooling system project


What are some of the barriers to the rollout of this technology?

Stakeholder engagement is really important and there are multiple stakeholders to consider including public entities, governments, building developers and owners. All of these have their own timelines, constraints, and targets such as corporate social responsibility goals, but they must all be aligned to develop infrastructure projects.

It is important to work with the public sector to help the development of systems. Most district networks were developed following a major public event that served as a catalyst, such as the announcement of the Olympic games. In these cases, public authorities are the regulators so can therefore help in facilitating construction permits, overcoming regulatory requirements or dealing with subsidiaries. Secondly, by working with municipalities, developers can get incentives to connect to district cooling by methods such as incorporating it as part of an architecture piece.


Are there any new innovations for energy efficiency in this space?

In terms of innovation, there is the possibility of using thermal energy storage to reduce the cost of peak energy consumption periods. District cooling can also be used from lakes, rivers, and seas to utilize natural resources. With bigger industrial equipment working more resourcefully, it makes district cooling more efficient than standalone technologies.


How does this impact the general public?

District cooling systems are solutions to urban areas such as cities and globally they are going to grow in terms of population and density. This growth in cities is creating what is known as a ‘heat island effect’ and there is some research that shows that the worlds cities are heating at a pace that is twice the global average of increased temperature. With more people in cities, more building materials are used that are attracting heat from the sun, greeneries are being removed, and heat from the human activity itself is being produced which makes the warming of cities much higher than in the countryside.

Find out more about ENGIE’s district cooling system in Paris

District cooling systems can make the everyday life of working people more comfortable and less difficult, particularly during periods such as heatwaves.


How can district cooling systems act as a good solution for the decarbonization of cities?

This solution is a big way to bring decarbonization to city centres and areas like campuses or airports as it can bring economies of scale, additional efficiencies, and the integration of renewables such as biomass or solar to make cooling more efficient. As we experience more impact as a result of climate change, more cooling solutions are needed in forthcoming years, so it’s very important that this is integrated into future developments and existing areas that are looking to become more sustainable.


Did you enjoy this podcast? Listen to the previous episode with Amandeep Bedi here.