Tabreed drives sustainability in district cooling

29 September 2023
Digitalisation and advances in technology offer the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions in the sector, says Khaled al-Qubaisi, chairman of Tabreed

As the UAE prepares to host global leaders, policymakers and the climate community at the 2023 UN Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Cop28) later this year, it marks a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change.

The summit will include the first ever global stock take, where progress to date against reaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming threshold will be measured. The aim is to establish an actionable implementation plan to address areas where more progress is required.

Developing alternative and cleaner forms of energy production alone will not be enough to achieve the global warming targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement. Improving the efficiency of energy-intensive industries and sectors will play a critical role in mitigating the impact of climate change.

An easy place to start for countries in the Gulf is with the cooling sector, which accounts for 70 per cent of total energy consumption during peak summer periods.

Digital opportunity

While district cooling is already up to 50 per cent more efficient than conventional coolers, the next generation of advancements in digital technologies offers the opportunity to further reduce carbon emissions and the cost of services for customers.

Although much media attention has focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and the progress and dangers of tools such as ChatGPT, the district cooling sector can benefit significantly from utilising Big Data and AI technologies to improve efficiency and the reduce carbon footprint of operations.

Autonomous operation

One way that these technologies can be harnessed to improve the performance of district cooling infrastructure is by enabling autonomous or remote operation. By utilising sensors and data-driven software, operators can monitor equipment and energy usage and operate cooling plants and networks remotely from a central dispatch centre (CDC).

The next generation of advancements in digital technologies offers the opportunity to further reduce carbon emissions and the cost of services for customers

Sometimes referred to as the ‘digital brain’, CDCs can decide and control which plants and equipment to run at certain times of the day to meet demand. Data-driven algorithms can forecast customer demand and make operations-related decisions, such as chilled water flow, temperature set points and equipment sequencing, thus optimising energy and water consumption and removing human error. This increased efficiency results in lower carbon emissions and cheaper services for customers.

CDC and embedded optimisation software will play a critical part in enabling the integration of renewable energy resources to cooling infrastructure in the coming years, with variable solar and other renewable resources adding a layer of complexity to the operation of plants and micro-grids.

As part of Tabreed’s partnership with Engie Digital, the firm has developed a digital twin to model the water distribution networks and four production plants at our 235,000 refrigeration ton (RT) Downtown Dubai network – the world’s largest fully automated district cooling scheme. Being able to model the networks and assets has enabled us to boost operational efficiency and reduce energy and water consumption.

Predictive maintenance

Leveraging the power of data and the Internet of Things with AI can further improve operational efficiency through condition-based monitoring. Intelligent algorithms analyse data collected from sensors and monitoring devices to predict when equipment needs to be replaced or repaired, preventing costly equipment downtime and reducing carbon emissions during service callouts.

While digital twins are not a new development, when paired with AI they can significantly improve the operational efficiency of district cooling infrastructure.

A digital twin is a virtual replica of a physical asset that captures insight about the plant and enables testing and monitoring of equipment under various conditions. Advances in AI technology allow digital twins to provide alternative processes in real-time to mitigate issues such as plant downtime.

Investment challenge

A major challenge to the development of more efficient district cooling networks is capital expenditure. Significant upfront investment is required to implement digital technologies, some of which have a slow return on investment.

While the private sector can drive innovation in the industry, regulators play a crucial role in establishing an environment conducive to attracting capital. By implementing the correct policies, offering incentives for real estate developers and guaranteeing the cost of electricity and water, regulators can stimulate investment and foster innovation that can reduce carbon emissions and cut costs for customers.

Moreover, regulation of the sector can improve the reliability and sustainability of cooling infrastructure by mandating specifications for networks and equipment. An example of this is the requirement set by the regulator in Abu Dhabi for district cooling companies to establish a geographical information system capable of reliably mapping cooling assets and associated infrastructure.

This has ensured that when construction work is being carried out in areas above cooling infrastructure, teams are aware of where pipes and other assets are. This helps to avoid damage, protecting the integrity of assets and increasing reliability and sustainability.

In the run up to Cop28, Tabreed is preparing to launch its decarbonisation strategy, which will set out key objectives and timelines for reaching carbon neutrality. Sustainability and reducing the environmental impact of operations has always been a priority for Tabreed, and the company’s commitment to investing in the next generation of digital technologies will enable us to further reduce our carbon footprint and provide optimal cooling solutions for customers.


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