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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This week marks the official start of fall, but longer nights and colder days can make it harder to spend time outdoors. Luckily, there are several inspiring environmental films that can be streamed at home.
1. Kiss the Ground<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ccc5f0c92a5603e68aec39e56b0db02a"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K3-V1j-zMZw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 22</strong></p><p>Between <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/wildfires-california-washington-oregon-photos-2647585008.html" target="_self">wildfires devastating the U.S. West Coast</a> and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tropical-storm-beta-landfall-2647760268.html" target="_self">storms battering the Gulf</a>, the impacts of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change/" target="_self">climate crisis</a> can feel overwhelming right now. <em><a href="https://kissthegroundmovie.com/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">Kiss the Ground</a> </em>offers an alternative to all of the bad news by focusing on solutions.</p><p>The film, directed by Josh and Rebecca Tickell and narrated by Woody Harrelson, explains how we can heal the Earth through "regenerative agriculture," farming practices that draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and into soil as a way to restore soil health, which in turn boosts ecosystems and food supplies.</p><p>"<em>Kiss the Ground </em>shows how feasible it is to make these changes at a grassroots level immediately and make a truly substantive impact with low cost and easy to implement solutions," Executive Producer RJ Jain said in an email. "This is why I got involved."</p>
2. Public Trust: The Fight for America's Public Lands<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5338f7a2931e356910026e5fd76fac56"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/jsKMTAaj_wQ?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: YouTube</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Sept. 25, 2 p.m. EDT </strong></p><p>This <a href="https://www.patagonia.com/films/public-trust/" target="_blank">award-winning documentary</a> tells the stories of Indigenous activists, journalists, whistleblowers and historians working to protect America's <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/public-lands" target="_self">public lands</a>. The film focuses on three political struggles: the shrinking of <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/bears-ears" target="_self">Bears Ears</a> National Monument in Utah, the mining of Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minnesota and the opening of the <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/Arctic-National-Wildlife-Refuge" target="_self">Arctic National Wildlife Refuge</a> to fossil fuel exploration.</p><p><em>Public Trust</em> was directed by David Garrett Byars and produced by Jeremy Rubingh. Patagonia Films, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Robert Redford are executive producers. It will be <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">released</a> on YouTube in time for <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/national-public-lands-day-2640656776.html" target="_self">National Public Lands Day</a>.</p><p>"Our country is fortunate to have millions of acres of public lands, including National Parks, Monuments, Wildlife Refuges and Wilderness set aside for future generations," Redford said. "Sadly, these lands that belong to you and me are under unprecedented threats from the greed of big corporations, eager to weaken restrictions in the pursuit of profits. Many of our current politicians are also to blame. <em>Public Trust</em> tells the story of citizens who are fighting back. It's a much-needed wake-up call for all of us who want to preserve our unique and wild cultural heritage."</p>
3. David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="156438a30836a765d7a92982545fc334"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/B_OFZvAd05Y?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>Streaming On: Netflix</strong></p><p><strong>Premiere Date: Oct. 4</strong></p><p>Beloved nature broadcaster <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/David-Attenborough" target="_self">David Attenborough</a> has spent his career introducing viewers to the wonders of our planet. In recent years, his footage of albatrosses swallowing <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/plastics" target="_self">plastic</a> in <em>Blue Planet II</em> has been credited with <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/2018-fighting-plastic-waste-2624606566.html" target="_self">helping to ramp up</a> the global fight against plastic pollution. Now, in this <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">World Wildlife Fund</a> (WWF)-produced <a href="https://www.attenborough.film/" rel="noopener noreferrer" target="_blank">documentary</a>, he reflects on the defining moments of his career and the devastating changes he has witnessed.</p><p><em>David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet,</em> which was also produced by Silverback Films and directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes and Keith Scholey, features an intimate conversation between Attenborough and Sir Michael Palin as the broadcaster reflects on his life and a career that took him to every continent on Earth. In addition to streaming on Netflix, the movie will be available in select theaters starting Sept. 28.</p><p>"For decades, David has brought the natural world to the homes of audiences worldwide, but there has never been a more significant moment for him to share his own story and reflections," WWF executive producer Colin Butfield said in a <a href="https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/david-attenborough-life-our-planet" target="_blank">statement</a>. "This film coincides with a monumental year for environmental action as world leaders make critical decisions on nature and climate. It sends a powerful message from the most inspiring and celebrated naturalist of our time."</p>
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