District Cooling Perspectives for the Middle East

District cooling produces chilled water in a centralized location for distribution to buildings like offices and factories through a network of insulated underground pipes. The chilled water travels to different buildings, where the water circulates through refrigeration coils or uses absorption technology to enter the air-conditioning system. During winter, the source for the cooling can often be sea water, so it is a cheaper resource than using electricity to run compressors for cooling.

What is District Cooling

District cooling provides effective control over internal temperature of a building, requires less maintenance than a standalone air-conditioning system, consumes lesser space and reduces noise pollution. The effect of district cooling systems on the environment is minimal because of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, use of eco-friendly refrigerants and implementation of rigorous health and safety standards.

The Helsinki district cooling system in Finland uses waste heat from CHP power generation units to run absorption refrigerators for cooling during summer time, greatly reducing electricity usage. In winter time, cooling is achieved more directly using sea water. The adoption of district cooling is estimated to reduce the consumption of electricity for cooling purposes by as much as 90 percent. The idea is now being adopted in other Finnish cities.

The use of district cooling is also growing rapidly in Sweden and in a similar way. District cooling is very widespread in Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. In fact, approx. 7 million square meters of commercial space in Stockholm is connected to the district cooling grid. The Stockholm district cooling grid currently consists of different systems with capacities ranging from 3 MW to 228 MW. The district cooling network in Stockholm is currently 76 kilometers long.

District Cooling Prospects in the Middle East

There is tremendous potential for the utilization of district cooling systems in the Middle East. The constant year-round heat coupled with expensive glass exteriors for hotel, airports and offices etc result in very high indoor temperatures. The combination of distributed generation of power and utilization of waste heat can provide a sustainable solution to meet the high demand for refrigeration in the region. District cooling systems can provide cooling solutions to commercial buildings, hotels, apartment blocks, shopping malls etc.

The world’s largest district cooling plant, Integrated District Cooling Plant (IDCP), was installed in The Pearl-Qatar in 2010. IDCP will service more than 80 apartment towers, beachfront villas, townhouses, shopping complexes, offices, schools and hotels throughout the Island, ultimately supplying more than 130,000 tons of refrigeration to the Island’s estimated 50,000 residents.

Despite paramount importance of air conditioning in Middle East countries, regional governments have failed to incorporate it in policy and planning which has lead to the evolution of an unregulated market for cooling systems.  Most of the cooling methods employed nowadays are based on traditional window units or central air cooling systems where consume copious amount of power and also damage the environment.

District cooling has the potential to provide a viable solution to meet air conditioning requirements in the Middle East. Low energy requirement, peak saving potential, eco-friendliness and cost-effectiveness are major hallmarks of district cooling networks. District cooling can play a vital role in fostering sustainable development in Middle East nations. Apart from providing cooling needs, district cooling can reduce the need for new power plants, slash fossil fuel requirements and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the region.   

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Energy Efficiency Perspectives for UAE

With Abu Dhabi alone on track to generate more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity for the first time, discussion about improving energy efficiency in the United Arab Emirates is taking on a more critical tone. Daytime energy use in the hot summer months is still experiencing rampant year-on-year growth, with peak demand this year growing by 12 per cent. Lying at the heart of these consumption levels is the need for air conditioning, which accounts for about half of total electricity demand.

Business and Government Action

At the commercial level, considerable steps are being taken to reduce the Emirate’s carbon footprint. A building insulation program in Dubai has resulted in claims that all buildings there have become twice as energy efficient since completion of the program. Further steps are also underway in other ecological areas such as water efficiency and waste management with the intention of ensuring the green credentials of every building meet international environmental standards and expectations.

At the official level the Emirates’ Authority for Standardization and Metrology continues to implement its Energy Efficiency Standardization and Labelling (EESL) program. This introduced specific efficiency and labelling requirements for non-ducted room air-conditioners in 2011.

These measures were joined this year by requirements under the same program for many other household electrical goods including lamps, washing machines and refrigerating appliances. The labelling requirements under this program will become mandatory by 2013 enabling consumers to see which machines are the most efficient and make sound environmental choices that will also save them money on running costs. The EESL programme will be further extended in 2013 to include ducted air-conditioners and chillers.

The UAE’s oil and gas sector also is recognising the importance of the energy efficiency agenda. It might seem counterintuitive that a sector with oil reserves of about 97 billion barrels and natural gas reserves of six trillion cubic meters should be thinking about how to save energy. The issue is that these reserves, despite their size, are not finite and that oil for export produces greater revenue generation than oil for the domestic market. It is, therefore, in the oil and gas sector’s interest to work with those trying to drive down domestic consumption, as it will maximise the sector’s longer term sustainability.  

The Emirates Energy Award was launched in 2007 to recognize the best implemented practices in energy conservation and management that showcase innovative, cost effective and replicable energy efficiency measures. Such acknowledged practices should manifest a sound impact on the Gulf region to stir energy awareness on a broad level and across the different facets of society.

Significance of Behavioural Change

As much as formal initiatives and programmes have their place in the battle for a more energy efficient UAE, there also needs to be a general shift in culture by the public. Improving public perception of green issues and encouraging behaviours that support energy efficiency can contribute significantly towards the overall goal. As fuel prices increase in the domestic market, the UAE’s citizens are already adding more weight to fuel efficiency when considering what cars they will buy.

SUVs and 4x4s might still be the biggest sellers but household budgets are becoming increasingly stretched and many ordinary citizens are looking for smaller more efficient cars. Perhaps for the first time, the entire running costs of cars are being considered and the UAE’s car dealers and their suppliers are looking to accommodate this change in their customers’ attitudes. This trend is so significant that some car dealerships are seeing large year-on-year increases in sales of their smaller, more efficient models.

Car rental companies are seeing this trend also and in Dubai, at least one is making hiring a car with green credentials more appealing to a wider cross-section of the public – offering everything from the more familiar Chevrolet Volts and Nissan Leafs to the most exotic hybrid and fully electric cars available to hire or lease.

Capitalising on these trends makes both environmental and business sense but economic drivers cannot alone be left to change public behaviour. There are really simple measures that government and business should be encouraging people to take. Some may argue that switching-off computers, lights and air-conditioning at the end of the working day may save energy but is not sufficiently worthwhile promoting – voluntary measures of this sort will not impact on overall energy trends.

There is evidence however that if these behaviours are added to measures like installing energy efficient lighting, lowering thermostats and optimising EESL five-star rated air-conditioners, the energy savings really do become significant – potentially halving a building’s energy consumption.

Conserving energy may not yet be a way of life in the UAE but the rapid changes being seen there are an indicator of what is to come. Formal energy efficiency programs and voluntary measures combined will help the UAE maintain its economic strength in the region and because of this it is one agenda that will not be going away.

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Water Management in UAE

The United Arab Emirates is among the top water-scarce countries in the world. However the country has one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption of 550 liters per day. The country is experiencing a rapid increase in population which has in turn resulted in huge demand for water. In 2009, the total water demand in UAE was estimated at 4.5 billion m3 (BCM) which was met by groundwater (72%), desalinated water (21%) and retreated water (7%).

Water consumption in UAE is primarily divided among three sectors:

  • Private households
  • Agriculture
  • Industries

Private Household Sector

This sector accounts for about 24% of total water consumption in the UAE. One of the largest contributors to water consumption is the use of air conditioning systems which is in widespread use because of high temperatures almost throughout the year. An air-conditioning system not only consumes vast amounts of energy, but also uses large quantity of water via chilled water pumps.

In addition, the country has the world’s highest per capita consumption of bottled water of 285 liters per year. The water used to fill the bottles is mainly desalinated water, which costs approximately 11.8 billion AED annually. In addition, it takes around 3 liters of water in order to make 1 liter of bottled water.

Water misuse is another important factor in slow progress of water management initiatives. An example of misuse is garden or landscape irrigation through spray irrigation which consumes about 12 to 15 liters of water per m2 every day. Some of the urgent steps for promoting water conservation in private households include:

  • Introduction of new tariff system based on a water meter.
  • Mass awareness on water conservation measures.
  • Introduction of new methods of irrigation, such as subsurface drip irrigation.
  • Supply of safe drinking water through taps

Agricultural Sector

Agricultural sector is responsible for two-thirds of all water consumption in the Emirates. Rapid population growth has led to a surge in food demand, which has resulted in additional stress on water resources. One of the largest contributors to water wastage is low irrigation efficiency. As mentioned above, it takes about 12-15 liters to water 1 m2 of land daily, 30 percent of which is lost to evaporation while using traditional irrigation methods, such as spray irrigation.

United Arab Emirates has taken crucial steps to battle this crisis. The government has introduced new irrigation techniques that are more efficient, such as drip irrigation, which use 35% less water than traditional systems. The country has also moved away from crops that are water-intensive, and is also experimenting with use of wastewater for irrigation. A change to less water-intensive crops coupled with a change in irrigation techniques would dramatically decrease the amount of water used inthis sector.

Industrial Sector

Industries consume around 9 percent of all water consumption in the country. Most of the water is used to cool and clean impurities from machinery, which is then transformed into run-offs causing pollution in nearby environments. The wastewater produced is not lost and can be used for irrigation.

The government has taken steps into utilizing industrial wastewater. For example, in Abu Dhabi, a total of 600 million m3 of treated wastewater is produced a year, but only 352 million m3 is used for landscaping and district cooling. Industrial wastewater will need to play a more prominent role in all three sectors if the country is to move forward.

The Way Forward

Water management in the United Arab Emirates can be improved through a variety of measures. The government has made sufficient arrangements for supply of clean and drinkable tap water from desalination plants. However, on its journey to households, the water is contaminated in two ways: The first is through old and rusted pipes. Water flowing through ageing pipelines would become contaminated with bacteria, which makes it undrinkable. The second is through storage tanks. Dead birds, rats, insects and metals can be found in storage tanks, which would eventually cause water to become harmful. This happens because storage tank cleaning, which has to be done approximately every 6 months, is left to the owner of the property. Because there is no law enforcing it, most landlords are not too keen to spend money on it or simply forget to clean them.

To resolve this problem, the government should consider the following:

  • Replace old pipelines to stop water contamination.
  • Enforce a law requiring landlords to clean storage tanks.
  • Hire professionals to assist in tank cleaning.
  • Hire experts to carry out surprise inspections.
  • Incentivize people to use tap water by increasing bottled water prices.
  • Educate people about the benefits of consuming tap water.

UAE has introduced drip irrigation as a means to conserve water, however its widespread use is yet to pick up. The government should make it mandatory for farm owners to use drip irrigation which could save upto 8 litres of water per m2 every day. Following initiatives are required on the part of the government to promote drip irrigation in the Emirates.

  • Motivate farmers to install drip irrigation systems.
  • Provide subsidy for installation of drip irrigation systems.
  • Educate farmers on how to operate and maintain drip irrigation systems.
  • Educate farmers and general public about long-term effects of water scarcity on agriculture.

In a country where water might one day become more expensive than oil, one cannot ignore the fact that a big crisis is looming ahead. United Arab Emirates is one of the largest consumers of water per capita globally, but is also one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. Management of water is essential due to increasing population, growing industrialization and dwindling natural water resources. The biggest challenge for the UAE is not finding different water sources, but decreasing the demand for it and minimizing water losses. There are currently 100,000 hectares of cultivated land in the UAE and huge amount of water can be saved by making use of basic water conservation measures. Implementation of effective policies/legislations and public support is key to success of water conservation programs in the country.