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Is District Cooling a sustainable alternative to Air Conditioning Systems?

Some of the widely known examples of DC systems in India include GIFT City in Gujarat, DLF Cyber City in Gurgaon, and the latest to join the bandwagon being Hyderabad Pharma City (HPC) (tender process ongoing).

Is District Cooling a sustainable alternative to Air Conditioning Systems?
All of these measures together can ensure cooling is not only cost effective with benefits distributed across the value chain, but also more equitable.

By Sudheer Perla,

With a warming Earth, India, too, has been experiencing scorching temperatures due to increase in the intensity and frequency of heatwaves. Research by Lancet shows that extreme heat events in 2019 alone led to more than 356,000 deaths globally. As the level of warming increases, breaching critical points, the scale of this impact will only worsen, posing significant risks to vulnerable sections of the society. This is not to mention the adverse impact on access to and supply of health services (vaccines, medicines), perishable foods and ancillary agriculture services, and data centres. Given this paradigm, access to sustainable, environment friendly cooling is not a luxury anymore, but a basic necessity.

On the supply side, the increasing heat will result in added stress on our already burdened grids. Currently, 17% of the world’s power is being used for cooling, and this percentage is expected to triple to a whopping 51% by 2050 as the demand for cooling systems increases across sectors, with a large chunk coming from India given growing population and per-capita income. There is an urgent need for India to look at adopting sustainable cooling solutions that are energy efficient and green-powered to achieve its net zero ambitions.

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One such solution is district cooling (DC), widely used in Europe and America, and increasingly being adopted in India. DC networks supply chilled water produced in a central plant to buildings through a network of insulated pipes. DC systems can also make use of natural sources of water such as lakes, rivers and sea-water to exchange heat, thereby enabling provision of “free cooling”, that is, substantially decrease power consumption. The main advantage of DC is that it leverages economies of scale by aggregating demand, eliminating the need for independent AC units for buildings, thus, meaningfully reducing capex requirement and the need to build for peak cooling capacity. Furthermore, DC systems are 20 to 50% more energy efficient than AC systems, ensure minimal to zero refrigerant leakage, free-up space for better utilization of expensive real estate, and allow for peak shaving through thermal energy storage.

Through demand aggregation and appropriate state intervention frameworks, district cooling can accelerate integrated urban energy planning and enable adoption of innovative technologies such as geo-thermal energy and captive renewable energy plants by providing anchor demand and aid adoption of progressive business models such as Cooling as a Service (CaaS) in the country. Additionally, DC can nudge circular economy for better resource use in the right direction. For instance, to circumvent the scarcity of water in cities, DC systems can make use of recycled water such as treated sewage effluent supplied by municipalities, it can also utilize industrial waste heat to produce energy and provide cooling. All of these measures together can ensure cooling is not only cost effective with benefits distributed across the value chain, but also more equitable.

Some of the widely known examples of DC systems in India include GIFT City in Gujarat, DLF Cyber City in Gurgaon, and the latest to join the bandwagon being Hyderabad Pharma City (HPC) (tender process ongoing). A good case in point is DLF Cyber City wherein this technology has helped reduce power demand by 100 MW and save around 36,000 tonne carbon emissions annually.

In conclusion, while DC systems already exist in the country, all stakeholders need to come together to make DC truly get off the ground. An important step in this direction is India Cooling Action Plan (ICAP) which recognises district cooling systems as a cross-cutting technology; supplemented through adequate interventions at state and central level and a concrete action plan, including creating awareness, setting up pilots, regulatory mandates in city bylaws, and fiscal incentives we can not only activate substantial energy savings but also ensure access to cheaper thermal comfort for all.

(The author is Country Manager, Tabreed India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the FinancialExpress.com.)

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