Rail and District Energy: Streets Paved in Better Than Gold

Mary Vogel's picture
District Energy is produced locally and can be used for heating, cooling & H2O

I'd like to get your opinion:  Could use of district energy for heating and cooling help to allow better urban design by increasing value in core area buildings (where it works best)?  District energy was a hot topic at Portland's second annual EcoDistricts Summit Oct 25-27, 2010.  It was attended by folks from all over North America and the world--just like RailVolution.  Please share your opinion on the Sustainable Industries site as well as here. . .
Rail & District Energy: Streets Paved in Better Than Gold

Combining efforts to lay tracks for rail transit and at the same time put in the underground pipes for conveying district energy could leapfrog all of our sustainability efforts.


District Energy is produced locally and can be used for heating, cooling and hot water. Image compliments of International District Heating Association

RailVolution was in Portland last week and I spent some time advocating a new item for the agendas of our ever-so-visionary, transit-savvy visitors from around the country. While streets are torn up to place streetcars or light rail tracks, why not add the underground pipe infrastructure for district energy?  For communities that have carbon emission goals, district energy/rail combination may be one of quickest paths to meeting them.

In my last article I claimed that streetcars are part of both a transportation and an urban design solution to climate change—a land use and economic development tool for achieving more prosperous and livable communities.  Now I want to make the case for district energy as a close second as a technology that can both help us achieve emissions limits and meet our energy needs while reshaping our cities.

District energy systems produce hot water, steam or chilled water at a central plant and then distribute the energy through underground pipes to buildings connected to the system.  Individual buildings do not need boilers, chillers or cooling towers. Customers use the hot and chilled water to meet their space heating and air-conditioning as well as hot water needs. Once used in buildings, the water returns through the closed-loop piping system to a central plant to be re-heated and re-chilled and then re-circulated.


Image compliments of International District Energy Association (IDEA)

Such district systems can use many different energy sources and offer many environmental benefits. They combat global warming by increasing energy efficiency, reducing air pollution and decreasing emissions of ozone-depleting refrigerants.  They also reduce water use and chemicals.  They help manage the demand for electricity by allowing for fuel flexibility and facilitating the use of renewable energy. 

Buildings become more valuable with district energy systems because they eliminate boilers and chillers, reduce the size of the mechanical room, electrical vaults, and condenser shafts allowing for more leaseable space and lower owning, operating and maintenance costs.  By eliminating a building’s cooling tower, stacks and chimney, they leave more rooftop space—perhaps for a green roof to play a role in stormwater capture, wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services.

Image compliments of International District Energy Association (IDEA)

How many utilities can claim "Our customers pay less now than they did in 1983"?  District Energy St. Paul, in operation since 1983, does just that.  Its plant uses a variety of fuels including oil and coal.  However, since the April 2003 startup of an adjacent wood-waste-fired combined heat and power facility managed by an affiliate, the company has reduced its reliance on coal and oil by 80 percent.  This helped the community solve a local wood waste disposal problem and created a new industry for collecting and processing wood.  Use of this local source in the district energy system puts up to $12 million annually into St Paul’s local economy. 

Time is running out for District Energy St. Paul to raise the $29 million it still needs for its plan for an Integrated Energy Corridor along a portion of the new Central Corridor Light rail line.  This line will run through one of the region’s most heavily traveled corridors: the 11-mile Central Corridor linking downtown Saint Paul and downtown Minneapolis via Washington and University avenues.  If it is able to do so by the middle of January 2011, this will be the first large scale model in the US of a rail/district energy combination.

Image compliments of District Energy St. Paul

As fellow Sustainable Industries writers Justin Moresco, Sara Stroud and Roger Valdez have pointed out, 125-year-old Seattle Steam is also making its fuel sources more sustainable. It hopes to soon match St. Paul’s 80 percent renewable supply.  Most major public and private colleges and universities either have a district energy system or are currently developing them or retrofitting them to run on renewable sources. Cornell University uses a 250-foot pipe into the bottom of Cayuga Lake to do “Lake Source Cooling” through its district energy system. This system reduced cooling electricity by 87 percent, cutting 25 million killowatt hours per year.

Denmark relies on district energy for 60 percent of its energy.  Combined heat and power (CHP) supplies about 80 percent of the energy and renewable energy sources supply at least 45 percent of the original power source.  While Denmark's gross domestic product (GDP) and gross energy consumption have gone up, it's CO2 emissions have gone down since 1990.

Proposed federal legislation, the Thermal Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act of 2010 S. 3626 sponsored by Senators Al Franken (D-MN) and Kit Bond (R-MO) and H.R.5805 by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), Jay Inslee (D-WA) and  Paul Tonko (D-NY) would add incentives to promote the development of CHP and district energy.  TREEA would expand tax-exempt bonding; develop a renewable thermal energy generation tax credit; and reauthorize and expand the energy efficiency and sustainability grants of the Department of Energy.  Other bills that would help fund district energy have been introduced too.

Combining efforts to lay tracks for rail transit and at the same time put in the underground pipes for conveying district energy at both the federal funding level and at the local level could leapfrog all of our sustainability efforts.  Such efforts could help to bring the US Department of Energy into the HUD-DOT-EPA Livable Communities partnership.  Let’s move this discussion with our Members of Congress and the Administration even before elections are over.  Start by asking them to support TREEA!

Mary Vogel, CNU-A
A Woman Business Enterprise/Emerging Small Business in Oregon

Sustainable Industries PlanGreen Blog


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