Cities Unleash Secret Underground Weapon to Become Clean Energy Powerhouses
Companies are tapping into cities' underground networks of steam pipes as a source of clean energy.
"Green steam," as it's called, "recaptures and reuses thermal energy previously lost to the environment, utilizing advanced cogeneration technology," according to Paris-based Veolia, which operates a dozen of these networks in North American cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Montreal.
District energy, piping steam or water to a circuit of buildings for heating and cooling, is already widely used in many cities, according to National Geographic. There are more than 700 of these subterranean systems in the U.S. alone. But the source of that energy has often come from coal- or oil-fired power plants. "Now many old systems are getting retrofits to deliver green steam generated with cleaner fuels and recovered waste heat," National Geographic explained.
Take Veolia. They spent $112 million to upgrade the gas-fired Kendall Station power plant in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2013. The plant captures waste heat that was going into the Charles River and instead funnels it into a 7,000-foot pipeline to heat and cool buildings in Boston and Cambridge. According to the company, 70 percent of Boston’s high-rise buildings are served by the green steam.
The company claims their green steam system has reduced the region's annual greenhouse gas emissions by 475,000 tons, the equivalent of taking 80,000 cars off the road every year.
“These legacy urban networks that were built back in the day by the utilities have become, fundamentally, portals for sustainable energy,” Bill DiCroce, who leads commercial and municipal business for Veolia, told National Geographic.
How cities, incl Boston use “green steam” to heat buildings & reduce emissions https://t.co/QWFWDEPLnw via @NatGeo https://t.co/8CyE8T117o— Barr Foundation (@Barr Foundation)1455037189.0
Other systems "use tree trimmings, household waste and other biomass to generate electricity, capturing the surplus heat in the process and delivering it to customers," National Geographic explained.
For businesses, it often makes economical sense to tap into this energy source. “It’s a lot cheaper” to buy energy from that system “than it is for me to actually have to maintain a piece of equipment that would heat enough water or steam to keep these buildings going,” Chris Sherman, Boston's Faneuil Hall marketplace operations manager, said.
In Minnesota, District Energy St. Paul, which heats 80 percent of buildings in downtown St. Paul, is greening its operations too. In October 2015, they announced plans to end the use of coal by 2021. They said this will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 27 percent or 21,000 tons. They already utilize renewable energy sources, such as waste heat from biomass-fired combined heat and power and North America’s largest solar hot water system, but plan to increase their renewable sources as they phase out coal completely.
And using district energy to increase energy efficiency and renewables is even more popular outside of North America. A UN report last year identified 45 "champion cities," such as Copenhagen, Oslo and Tokyo, which used district energy to cut primary energy use 30 to 50 percent.
Copenhagen stood out in particular. Ninety-eight percent of the city’s buildings utilize district energy, and the city is working on converting all remaining coal-fired combined heat and power systems to biomass, according to the International District Energy Association.
Rob Thornton, president and CEO of the International District Energy Association, told National Geographic that cooling projects are getting “dramatic investment” in the Middle East, while Denmark and other countries are integrating solar farms to heat water for distribution.
There have been issues with leaks and explosions in some cities, but Veolia said they're rare. Some utilities, such as District Energy St. Paul, converted their systems to water to avoid the problems of steam explosions.
Still, "district energy has been slower to take off in North America because it’s driven mainly by private investment," Pernille Overbye, managing director of Canadian district energy at Ramboll, told National Geographic. But that may be changing. The U.S. Department of Energy has started supporting more district energy with a technical assistance program and possible loan guarantees.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
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The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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