Making Natural Gas Redundant.  

Making Natural Gas & Oil Redundant.  August 2016.

A Wakeup Call

I experienced a wake up call a year ago, while talking with a county official who said, “I know that when I press the start switch on a gas heating system that it will work. I know how it works.”  That was enough to tell me that I had not gotten through to him and that, as economic development officer for the county, he really wanted to see the new interstate gas pipeline built and that the county should convert from oil and propane to natural gas. I did not know how to get through to him, that there could be both, that the transition could be engineered for and combined with low temperature and renewable thermal systems serving the counties institutions and businesses, that there could be an effective path to full transition within a relatively brief period 

The opposition to fracking and high pressure pipelines goes on, as it should.   At the same time, I believe we need a clear vision and plan to reverse the expansion of gas and replace its current use with benign alternatives. Nonprofits, working individually and together, can help create positive alternatives to gas and oil – town by town, city by city.  This transition is not easy but totally doable.

We have many examples to follow, including both early pioneers and recent success stories. The college where Einstein received his teaching diploma and later taught at made its transition from fossil fuel heating (coal) to renewable energy in 1942. That same system continues to operate today, albeit with replacement of its core driver, the heat pumps.  It is one of four WW2 era heat pump systems heating multiple buildings in central Zurich. These are benign, renewable, steady state energy systems.  

The relatively new business campus of the software firm Epic Systems Corporation, in Wisconsin, uses a similar technology. Cornell Tech, opening in 2017 on Roosevelt Island in New York City, will be close to carbon neutral. Cornell University’s campus in Ithaca uses deep lake water cooling, super low energy, and shares it’s cool with Ithaca High School. Many of the high rise buildings in Toronto are cooled with deep lake water cooling, about a 90% reduction in carbon footprint.

A Failed Vision and a Success Story  

I had a dear friend in Dublin, Ireland back when I was in my twenties, Peter Byrne. He had a vision for energizing Dublin using by-product heat from existing power generating stations, effectively heating the city with waste heat. Even though my friend was then a senior engineer at the state owned electric utility, the Electricity Supply Board, his efforts were ignored and he was sidelined.

I am delighted to say that late last year the Irish government provided substantial funding to two waste heat district energy municipal systems for Dublin, thanks to the expert work of one exceptional young woman, Donna Gartland and her agency, City of Dublin Energy Management Agency (CODEMA).

More than a decade after first meeting my Irish friend Peter, I met Hans C. Mortensen on one of his visits to the US.  At the time he was president of the cooperatively and municipally owned thermal energy transmission company, the CTR, serving 98% of the greater Copenhagen area with recycled and renewable heat, an extraordinary achievement, a result of multiple municipalities cooperating.  Back in the seventies, in the days of oil crises, and several colleagues had been part of a team charged with forming the Danish energy policy.  The policy that this leading group of energy planners in Denmark came up with was the same as my friend clearly articulated for Dublin; same timeframe, same sensible policy. The Danish plan reached a high level of fruition, the Irish plan has taken 40 to 50 years to get to where it is as of last year, committed to recycled and renewable thermal district energy for significant sections of Dublin.

Ireland quickly burnt through its first natural gas field, the Kinsale field. It’s second gas field, Corrib, came on line recently has a remaining life expectancy of about ten years. I watched Ireland become a natural gas dependent country, entirely bypassing its rich sources of renewable low temperature ambient heat and sources of high temperature waste heat.  Ireland does have a carbon tax but it is not yet high enough to prod the needed change.

Ireland choose to maintain the split between electric generation and thermal energy supply. Denmark understood the synergy between the two and capitalized on it. Denmark and the other Nordic countries have a depth of experience and knowhow in sustainable energy systems.

Missed Opportunities

The situation in the US is much the same as in Ireland. The efficiency of electric power generation in the US is lower than in Ireland. Of the relatively few district/community energy systems that are operating in the US most are old legacy systems using nineteenth century technology and almost all are fossil fueled.

Over the past 25 years I have tried to get several recycled and renewable district/community energy systems going or at least seriously looked at. The proposed systems were for Burlington, Vermont; two towns in Ontario, Canada (Brockville and Coburg); downtown Honolulu, Hawaii; and several district projects in New York state. All were proposed as nonprofits, cooperatives or simply as a “let’s look and see if it works”. All met with resistance or disinterest from key participants. And while none have progressed to the stage of breaking ground, there is strong interest and advancing development efforts in a least four of the locations.

The first project was in Burlington, Vermont. Over a two year period we we formed a non-profit, Burlington District Energy Corp., purchased  the needed software in 1992 (HeatPlan from Washington State University) and completed detailed preliminary layout, design and costing. The McNeil Generating Station in Burlington, Vermont was built thirty years ago by the city electric department, Burlington Electric Department, a fine municipal utility. The wood chip fired power plant was designed with the capacity to supply steam heat to the nearby campus of the University of Vermont (UVM). Instead the power plant dissipates its by-product heat through cooling towers and a chimney stack.

Over the last thirty years there have been multiple attempts to use the byproduct heat from McNeil, and a continuing effort is underway. The first attempt was by the city and was based on steam as the heat medium. The second was by the non-profit formed by me and a colleague (Peter Duval) and was based on a hot water based distribution system (Burlington District Energy Corp). The third attempt was effort by a group with the acronym POETS. The fourth effort (for close to a decade of effort now) is by a focused group of resourceful and capable local citizens working with the city electric department and called Burlington District Energy Service ( In May 2016 the Burlington utility put out a request for information from suitable development partners for the district heating project and selected a Canadian private utility, Corex.  Little further progress appears to have been made.

About fifteen years ago reading a sustainability report for UVM, I recall it stated that 80% of the college’s carbon footprint is due to heating, adding that the report writers knew of no way to replace the carbon based system (regrettably I have lost the report citation).  A mile away from the college campus is the McNeil Generating Station, waste heat from the power plant could have been heating the campus for the past 30 years. Instead the college burns natural gas.

Vision for the Future

I got married at the Mead Chapel at Middlebury College, our reception was at the Middlebury Snow Bowl, my wife graduated from the college and grew up on a Champlain Valley farm. The Town of Middlebury converted to natural gas within in 2017/2018, a $130 million gas pipeline now carries gas to the town. The Vermont Public Service Board approved the gas pipeline to Middlebury, saying in its order that the project was “in the public good”. No vision of the many positive alternatives was never developed, except for the combustion of biomass throughout the town. The studies and decision tree for viable renewable and recycled energy alternatives are complex and time consuming – but essential if we are to reduce our carbon footprint 

Agri-mark is one of the largest energy users in Middlebury, it burns close to two million gallons of heavy fuel oil, known as #6 oil. Agri-mark is a major dairy processing plant, among its many products is Cabot Cheese. Another big energy user is Middlebury College. The college gets more than 60%  of its heating by burning wood chips. On a recent visit to the college it was burning #6 fuel oil.

A transition away from fossil fuels in Middlebury College would best involve the college changing its steam heat distribution system to hot water, and the lower the temperature the better for using renewable thermal such as solar thermal, heat pumps and recycled heat. Steam cannot be stored, hot water can be effectively stored on a daily or longer term. By-product heat from the milk processing plant could be recycled at a temperature useful enough for heating nearby commercial facilities and possibly sections of the town.

A study was done for Middlebury, the study focussed exclusively on biomass energy, as such it missed out on the array of ambient and recycled energy that could be harnessed. In supporting the expansion of natural gas pipelines to the Town of Middlebury, I question – did Middlebury College fail its community. The college did not take on the challenge of making the transition to combustion free renewable energy nor did it lead the town towards a cooler quieter energy system, one based less on combustion and more on compression, on recycled energy, solar thermal, on thermal storage, and on the path to the greener combustion free future we need.

The Vermont state energy plan calls for a 90% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. If it is to meet that goal the heating of indoor space by burning fossil fuel is out of the question.

In New York State.  New York’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV) is a fine vision for electricity, much needed, but it did not include thermal energy, at least not until a limited heat pump program was added. Likewise New York’s “Clean Energy Standard” is not about energy, it is only about electricity. 

The efficiency of fossil power plants in New York averages 32%.  In the Capital District of Albany and surrounding towns, by-product heat from the four power plants, within view from the Empire Plaza, housing state agencies, dissipate enough by-product heat to heat and cool the capital district, or a significant part of it. The energy vision in New york State is largely limited to electricity, as such it is of questionable adequacy.

I felt moved being part of the day-long opposition to the Pilgrim Pipeline in Albany, NY earlier this year, to stand with 1,500 others from so many groups. Likewise with the 300,000 strong People’s Climate March in 2014. More recently, I joined in with 200 others in support of the the twenty people who choose to get arrested in opposition to the AIM/Spectra pipeline in Peekskill, NY, including Aidan Ferris from the Earth Guardians in Woodstock.

Meanwhile in Middlebury, Jason Kaye and Alex Prolman locked themselves to a machine on a construction site one day in 2016, stopping construction of the gas pipeline for a day. For both it was their first experience of civil disobedience, a choice they did not take lightly. To be chained to heavy machinery is a vulnerable position.  Jason Kaye headed the Middlebury Sustainability group and worked as a carpenter. His action follows the years he and others spent appealing the application by Vermont Gas Systems to build the pipeline and the subsequent approval of the fossil fuel project by the state regulatory agency.  

Important as it is, opposition is not enough.  We need a vision and a plan that presents more attractive alternatives than expanding gas transmission and distribution pipelines.  A plan that will stop the expansion of gas and replace its current use, as the result of the implementation of better alternatives.  Nonprofits can do this, either individually or working together, town by town, city by city, creating positive alternatives.  One clear vision channelled in an organization that can apply for grant funding to develop and distribute information and concrete proven plans, learn how to use one of more open source web-based renewable district energy analysis tools (such as Thermos, PlanHeat, and HotMaps) and use intelligence energy concepts such as can be found in the work of 4th Generation District Heating,

Ideally one voice, many orgs, a blessed unrest as Paul Hawken so eloquently wrote.  One clear vision without any one way, just benign and sustainable energy pathways.

Dermot McGuigan


August 17, 2016, minor edits May 2019

Ulster County – Decarbonization: Heating and Cooling – July 2016

Ulster County – Decarbonization, with a focus on Heating and Cooling

Memo: July 20, 2016


Transitioning from the combustion of fossil fuels for heating to the use of renewable thermal energy is both challenging and achievable. This memo includes suggestions regarding campuses and facilities in Ulster County. It is broken into subheadings as follows:

  • SUNY Ulster Campus
  • Kingston Hospitals, City Hall and High School.
  • Other Communities and Facilities in Ulster County
  • Ulster County Administration Role
  • State Regulatory Environment and initiatives, a thumbnail list.

SUNY Ulster Campus:

The SUNY Ulster campus is reportedly heated with a mix of electricity and oil. SUNY Ulster provides training in energy efficiency and conservation, heat pump technology, solar thermal energy and solar electric energy as part of  the college’s portfolio of trade skill classes. Planning, design and construction of renewable thermal systems at the campus could be developed by the teaching staff and students, working with outside consultants. The process of developing renewable thermal systems serving the whole campus would be an excellent training opportunity. There is a need for training and expertise in monitoring ongoing thermal system performance, particularly with regard to measuring the operating efficiency ground source heat pumps (increasingly referred to as geothermal heat pumps).

The SUNY Ulster campus could choose to combine any number of renewable thermal technologies: solar thermal panels, thermal energy storage, and heat pumps drawing on one or more sources of ambient thermal energy such as ground, air and water. Renewable thermal at SUNY Ulster, together with the proposed solar electric project at the campus, would result in a campus-wide transition to a high percentage of renewable energy for both thermal and electrical energy. This would put the SUNY Ulster campus at the forefront of colleges transitioning to renewable energy, together with leaders such as the Cornell Tech campus nearing completion on NYC’s Roosevelt Island.

The economics of converting to renewable thermal energy could benefit from programs and financing offered by the NY Green Bank, PACE financing and NYSERDA grants. There may be other financial incentives available through initiatives such as listed below.

At this year’s “NY Geo” conference in Albany the chairwoman of the NY Public Service Commission said that the PSC is now fully on board with ground-source heat pumps. Scott Smith, a program manager at NYSERDA, indicated that a new renewable thermal program at NYSERDA will include the broad range of heat pump systems and not just ground-source, together with other renewable thermal technologies.

The renewable thermal program should include heat recovery ventilation systems utilizing heat pumps, an efficient form of energy recycling which enjoys widespread use in Sweden (typically air-to-water), and which could be used at SUNY Ulster. Heat pump heat recovery ventilation appears to be largely unknown in the US; it is efficient energy recycling and would be good to have as part of a campus that teaches energy tech.

The most important key to transitioning to renewable thermal is to improve the building performance and thereby reduce the need for energy input. The two aspects, building envelope improvement and renewable thermal, go hand in hand and provide teaching opportunities.

Kingston Hospitals and High School:

More than $300 million is committed to the dense urban area that includes the two Kingston hospital campuses and Burlington High School. The energy choices these facilities make, or have made, will lock in energy systems that will have an expected lifetime well past 2050, the date of the NY State goal of an 80% reduction in GHG emissions.

Imagine a circle drawn to include the High School, both hospitals, the Kingston Center of SUNY Ulster and maybe one or two adjacent buildings such as Kingston City Hall. If these buildings are then viewed as a campus, a plan could be developed to synchronize energy systems to derive the maximum benefit from the cycles of heating and cooling needs.

Energy needed for space cooling could be drawn from chilled water or ice storage charged at night using cooler nighttime air temperatures, ground source heat pumps, or could be indirectly cooled by municipal water supply (heat pump assisted). This could significantly reduce peak electricity demand and would provide a certain level of thermal ballast and resilience (electric energy required for circulation being considerably less than that required for chiller operation).

Natural cooling is used at Cornell University and Ithaca High School, using water from Cayuga Lake. The city of Toronto developed a city-owned district cooling system using deep lake water cooling, serving downtown highrise buildings. In Toronto about 25 miles of underground pipelines connect 150 buildings with district heating and cooling.  Toronto recently sold its cooling system to Enwave, at considerable profit to the city. Cornell choose to pay a higher cost for natural cooling than conventional cooling would have cost (whereas Toronto was profitable).

A study of Kingston water mains as a lower temperature source for a limited cooling loop or even just one facility may be worthwhile. Paris has a hybrid direct and indirect (heat pump assisted) district cooling system, sourced by the River Seine, serving downtown (including the Louvre). The point being, these systems do work and are presently working in New York, at a 90% reduction in energy cost in the case of both Cornell and Toronto

The basic theme here is that a district cooling loop, particularly if combined with a heating loop, can allow for a resilient and efficient thermal system. If such a system were to be used in Kingston, the buildings in that particular area would enjoy a reduced carbon footprint. If developed first as a hybrid fossil/renewable system it would also benefit from having thermal distribution systems compatible with what could evolve to be 100% renewable.

In the particular case of the Kingston buildings, it may be that the Benedictine campus would be better provided for by continuing with its own energy system due to the bedrock between it and the Kingston Campus and High School. A feasibility study would show the viability.

A microgrid study is underway in Kingston. Microgrids are focused on electric system resilience, providing electricity to critical facilities in an outage. Gas fired combined heat and power (CHP) is reported to be a consideration for the Kingston microgrid. CHP is an efficient fossil fuel system. Again, the point here is to have a design that will accommodate the potential future use of renewable thermal, which typically involves a lower temperature heating distribution system.

The detail is secondary to the key point – how to get off fossil fuels in order to meet simple thermal needs. Connecting the thermal systems of multiple buildings, particularly where there are differing energy use patterns, can result in economic synergies. When a building is being renewed, design it to be compatible with future use of heat pumps and solar thermal energy, or a hybrid fossil/renewable system.

Connecting the thermal systems of multiple buildings and campuses has long been referred to as district energy. It can be cooperatively owned, developed as a non-profit or contracted out to district energy developers and operators. District cooling is in use in Chicago, Austin TX, Gainesville FL and at many other locations. RUPCO is ahead of the curve in that it has installed ground source heat pump technology at its Lace Mill facility and at Woodstock Commons. District energy can introduce additional technologies to further enhance the low carbon profile of buildings. A district heating study was done for Kingston in the 1980’ies.

Newer district energy systems, referred to as Fourth Generation District Energy (4G-DE) or 4G District Heat in Nordic countries (4DH), focus on 100% renewable district or community energy systems; heating, cooling and electricity – or at least the thermal side. The key organization promoting this in the US is the International District Energy Association and in Europe it is “The 4DH Research Centre”  

Other Communities and Facilities:

Ulster County Law Enforcement Center:

With a building envelope of 227,000 square feet, the UCLEC has clear energy needs (reportedly $1 million/year).  Planning could commence for the eventual implementation of renewable thermal energy systems at the facility. This would include an assessment of the immediately available thermal energy resources at the facility campus (heat pumps (air, ground or possibly deep geothermal), solar thermal and electric, together with thermal storage).  

New Paltz Village and SUNY New Paltz:

A microgrid study is underway in the Village of New Paltz, to include solar electric energy. Adding renewable thermal energy planning to complement an electric microgrid is worthy of consideration. SUNY New Paltz has a gas-fired high pressure, high temperature heat distribution pipe network serving individual buildings, distributed at lower temperature. The conversion of such a system to renewable heating will likely be economical when there is the need for a major overhaul of the system. A hybrid Village/SUNY district energy, to include heating, is worthy of encouraging, even if it only results in greening systems which remain separate.

Sundry Towns and Villages:

The conversion of buildings in smaller towns in the county (such as Woodstock, Rosendale, Rochester) from fossil fuel to renewable thermal energy supply is a challenge. The Town of Woodstock uses ground source heat pumps at its Highway Department and the Town Hall/Courthouse/Police Dept., together with solar electric generation at both locations. Houst Hardware has used solar hot air panels for heating for about 30 years.

Community based renewable district energy, in clusters of neighboring buildings, could be developed using heat pumps, solar thermal and electric, thermal storage and recycling energy as options. The Energy Working Group of Woodstock Transition continues to work on a 100+ home district energy system for the Bearsville Flats area and to explore multi-building central village mini-districts, for example the rehabbed or new Woodstock Library plans to use ground source heat pumps and there may be the potential to bring some neighboring building onboard in a shared system, using GHG-free refrigerants.

Ulster County Administration Role:

A key to moving such initiatives forward, even if they are to be planned gradually, could be for the County to assist by identifying sources of funding. The focus should be on a program to convert to both renewable thermal and electric energy at a cost comparable to current energy costs. Over time, renewable energy options when well-designed, tend to be less costly than fossil fuel. For example, consider the low cost hydroelectric energy we enjoy thanks to NYPA.

State Regulatory Background and Initiatives:

Electric generation causes about 20% of the state’s GHG emissions (estimates range from 18 to 21%). The goal of the NY PSC is to increase the supply of electric energy from renewable resources from its present level of 27% to 50% by 2030. That goal will reduce the GHG emissions from the state by only six percent! In the opinion of some, as much as 80% of the State’s energy initiative is focussed on the source of 20% of our GHG emissions. Richard Kaufmann, the state energy czar describes the NY PSC’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV), as the pre-eminent state energy initiative. REV is largely if not exclusively focused on electricity.   

To sum up, this is call for institutions, towns and agencies in Ulster County effort to focus on (1) planning for and moving from combusting fossil fuel to using renewable energy for space and water heating, and (2) the use of district cooling with thermal storage in dense urban areas to reduce the need for new power generation plants to meet summer peak cooling demand.


Dermot McGuigan

Energy Symbiosis LLC

18 Elwyn Lane

Woodstock, NY

Phone: 1-845-399-3245

Comment submitted on the Draft 2014 New York State Energy Plan – advocating for the inclusion of district energy in the Plan.




Fourth generation district energy is replacing old steam based first generation district heating with dynamic and efficient networks that are compatible with renewable energy.  Such systems supply  heating, cooling and electricity generation in an increasing number of mostly Northern European cities and towns.  Fourth generation district energy (4G-DE) is also being implemented in forward thinking colleges and communities in the USA.  Examples include Cornell University in Ithaca and at its new Roosevelt Island campus in NYC, Stanford University, Oberlin College in Ohio and at the campus of the leading medical software company Epic in Wisconsin.  District energy is evolving towards renewable heating, cooling and electricity generation, ideally applied in smaller networks of buildings rather than large city scale systems. Keys to this evolving approach can be found in sources such as at the website of 4th Generation District Heating (4GDH) at

The comments below focus on incremental improvements to existing thermal and power energy systems, particularly in regard to policy and regulation which separate power generation and thermal energy.   December 2016.


The following comments were filed in May 2014.

The energy content of heat rejected as waste exceeds the energy used for heating and cooling nationally.[i] In New York State 28.5% of our total primary energy consumption is lost in the process of power generation alone.[ii] A key to achieving the goals of the State Energy Plan is to create policy so that future power generation is designed and built to operate in tandem with district energy networks – underground thermal pipelines supplying heating and cooling to nearby industrial, commercial and dense residential space.

Many district heat systems operate throughout NY state, often operating separate from power generation, such as at the OSG’s Sheridan Street central steam plant serving downtown Albany. Most colleges, hospitals, military and government facilities have thermal only district energy. With the exception of CHP, ­ power generation and thermal energy supply operate on separate tracks. District energy opens up considerable productivity gains in both capital and energy utilization.

CHP and District Energy:

NYSERDA has an excellent CHP program. The Draft Plan promotes CHP but not district energy and there is a real distinction between the two. For one, CHP typically begins and ends within the boundary of its host facility.

The IPCC, in its April 2014 report presents the strengths of district energy: “Development of intelligent district heating and cooling networks in combination with … heat storage allows for more flexibility and diversity … and facilitates additional opportunities for low carbon technologies (CHP, waste heat, heat pumps, and solar heating and cooling).[iii]

District energy enables a dynamic and interactive local restructuring of our power and thermal energy systems with the potential for deep GHG reductions. Smart grids allow distributed electricity inputs. Smart thermal grids are effective at recycling waste heat, allowing for heat inputs from CHP, IPP generation, waste and renewable energy.

The NY PSC’s initiative Reforming the Energy Vision is focused on electricity and not thermal energy.[iv] While the initiative has considerable merit there is still a need to include the benefits of synchronizing heat and power in the fullest sense. Smart electric grids and generation can operate best in tandem with equally smart thermal grids.

District cooling (direct from sources such as deep water cooling or via heat driven chillers) reduces demand for electric driven cooling. Con Edison’s NYC steam system drives chillers that would otherwise require 300MW of electric capacity.

Existing Power Plants:

Connecting existing power plants to district energy networks may be possible at a few locations where conditions are amenable. Proposed power plants in the NYISO queue are generally sited at locations unsuitable for cogeneration/district energy. An example is the Cricket Valley 1,000MW project in rural Dutchess County. According to the writer’s notes of a Q&A response from a staff engineer for this air-cooled project the project heat rate will range from 6,700 to 7,000 Btu/KWH, an average efficiency of fractionally under 50% … and this for a major power project yet to be built. In facilitating large central power generation current regulatory policy locks in long-term waste for the life of the generator.

The existing 640 MW Empire Generating plant in Rensselaer is in close proximity to the University of Albany School of Public Health and several pharmaceutical research and manufacturing facilities. Empire Generating was built with cogeneration capability, designed to meet the thermal needs of a paper recycling plant that did not develop. Byproduct heat from Empire Generating could supply thermal energy to local facilities (with a somewhat reduced electric output). At Empire Generating the byproduct heat is dissipated through a bank of eleven cooling towers while local facilities burn more gas to meet thermal needs that could be provided by waste. (This is not to criticize Empire Generating, an award-winning facility; it is to show one example of the juxtaposition of thermal waste and consumption, the underutilization of capital and energy.)

Economic Development and District Energy:

The 80 customers of the district energy system in small city of Jamestown, NY, have collectively saved $14 million in the first twenty-years of operation.[v] By 2011 customers shut down 130 individual boilers, rendered unnecessary by district energy. The cost of operating, maintaining and replacing individual boilers is no longer a burden to customers. Separate power generation and thermal energy systems require duplication of assets and unnecessary capital expenditure. District energy optimizes capital productivity.

Also in 2011, the Jamestown district-heating customer rate was $13/MMBtu – about 50% less than businesses not connected to the system.[vi] In addition to costing less, demand for fuel is reduced as a result of better resource use.

A recurring theme in the Draft Plan and the REV initiative is resource and capital productivity – district energy can be a key to best use of both capital and resources.

Many of the power plants in New York City heat the East River instead of heating and cooling the city. Most of the central power plants throughout the state today were built for power generation only. New combined cycle power will have a nameplate efficiency rating of 60% but real world operating efficiency will be less, and considerably less if air-cooled, and this is before transmission losses (9% state average.)


District Energy and Deep GHG Reductions:

The five largest power plants in the Capital Region – Empire Generating, Rensselaer Cogeneration, Bethlehem, Selkirk and Athens – produced over 6.2 million tons CO2 in 2012, about 36% of the regional GHG emissions.[vii] The efficiency of each of the four plants is under 50%. Instead of recycling waste heat, additional fossil fuel is burned to meet thermal needs. Absorption chillers driven by waste heat could supply cooling, replacing electrically driven chillers. A new State energy plan needs to envision real change to this scenario, creating a future that includes well-planned district energy.

Achieving full district energy potential will require significant policy and regulatory change, ideally including fiscal drivers. Planning for repowering and new power generation needs to be scaled to meet the synergy afforded by district energy, ensuring that byproduct heat be put to use. At some point in time we need policies that bring together power generation and thermal energy supply.


Building Efficiency and District Energy:

The recent $550 million energy efficiency retrofit at the iconic Empire State Building in New York City resulted in a 38% reduction in energy consumption with a three and a half year payback. The Con Edison cogenerated district steam system continues to supply the balance of the thermal energy needs of the Empire State Building. This is an example of conservation and district energy working in parallel and at its best.[viii]

Incremental Change:

The December 2013 PlaNYC document “Pathways to Deep Carbon Reductions” refers to district energy requiring up to 4,000 miles of pipe in the five boroughs at a cost of $27 billion ($1,278/foot). The PlaNYC plan does not include the gradual re-configuring of existing power plants to district energy. Nor does it reference the potential development or conversion of smaller power plants (such as those relatively recently installed by NYPA at several locations, so that the plants also supply thermal energy to ‘cherry-picked’ existing thermal networks.

The 2012 Capital Region Sustainability Plan references district energy as being one of two initiatives that received high public support in Albany and adds that the initiative was not selected but does not explain why. District energy requires considerable planning and coordination. We need realistic assessments of costs and benefits, based on engineering and costing developed by district energy experts


District Energy – A Resilient Transitional Tool:

Lower temperature networks can expand the reach of district energy. Hot water based district energy can harness low grade waste and renewable heat from multiple sources and transform it into useful energy with utility scale and GHG-free heat pumps, chillers and thermal storage. High quality sources of energy, such as electricity, natural gas and oil, for heating and cooling can, in some locations, be replaced with waste heat and renewable energy.

Designing thermal networks and adapting buildings to be compatible district energy is often more challenging than expanding natural gas networks. That said – natural gas pipelines are limited to carrying gas whereas thermal networks can efficiently deliver energy from fossil and renewable sources. District thermal energy systems are key to a gradual transition from fossil to renewable energy.

High Efficiency District Energy:

The presentation on the DG/CHP Data System, given at NYSERDA’s June 2012 conference in NYC reported high efficiency for CHP located at complex, multi-building facilities, such as Coop City and the Presbyterian Medical Center. These multi-building facilities have strong district energy characteristics.[ix]

Smartgrids, microgrids, CHP and district energy are compatible partners across the energy needs landscape. Jamestown, NY succeeded with hot water based district energy, as did St.Paul, MN. Recycled Energy Development is retooling the district energy project at Eastman Business Park in Rochester – generating power, steam, hot water and chilled water for multiple industrial clients and with greatly reduced CO2 emissions.

Free Markets and District Energy:

District energy networks provide the optimum free market conditions for competitive energy inputs. They create a level playing field. District energy allows for inputs from multiple sources, waste heat, natural gas, industrial scale GHG-free heat pumps, solar thermal, etc.

Current policy and regulation appears to prohibit, or at least limit, the creation of this level playing field. Policy encourages expanding natural gas service to replace oil heat. This policy precludes the many options that district energy could facilitate. Options include a significant increase in the availability of useful heat output from natural gas by using gas to directly or indirectly drive large-scale heat pumps (with waste heat reclamation from the driver … assuming 45% driver efficiency, a COP of three and 80% waste heat recycling for an energy yield of 1.78). District energy also facilitates the cogeneration of cooling and heating.

District energy opens up markets for large-scale heat pumps using GHG-free refrigerants such as ammonia and CO2. Stockholm and Helsinki combined employ hundreds of megawatts (thermal) of heat pumps drawing heat from sea and wastewater sources to supply heat on city scale. The Helsinki heat pumps reach COP’s of five or higher when simultaneously cooling eight data centers and providing city heat. Johnson Controls in the US speak of COP’s exceeding 6 is some applications.

Once a city block or district is converted to gas, gas is likely its only economic energy option for decades. Once a block in hooked up to district energy it can then be energized by gas and/or any number of other energy sources.


District Energy is a New York State Invention:

A global renaissance is taking place in district energy; it is progressing strongly in countries such as the United Kingdom, Dubai and China, and in forward thinking cities here in the US such as St. Paul, MN, Portland, OR, and Montpelier, VT. It is also emerging as the result of system renewal, as in Eastman Business Park with Recycled Energy Development.

Edison articulated the synergistic concept of district energy and implemented it at his Pearl Street plant in New York City. Edison said over a century ago that the generation of electricity, due to its inherent waste, should be located where the byproduct heat can be used. We need to accelerate the shift to appropriately scaled power and thermal networks. And we need to invent renewable energy derived district heating and cooling.

Combining efficient power and thermal solutions will make best use of New Yorkers capital and energy expenditures. District energy has always been a compelling approach to energy and today’s level of GHG emissions makes district energy policy an imperative action.


[i] Lawrence Livermore National Lab at:

[ii] Volume 2 of the Plan, End-Use, page 21, shows that 42% of the states primary energy is used for power generation with a net efficiency of 32% – for a net loss of 28.56%.

[iii] IPCC. Working Group III, AR5, Chapter 7, “Energy Systems” page 30. April 2014.

[iv] Confirmed at the PSC’s May 12th, 2014 meeting in Albany.

[v] From a paper presented by Dr. I. Oliker, P.E. of
Joseph Technology Corporation, Inc., at the NYSERDA “Combined Heat and Power
A New York State Prospective Conference”

[vi] ditto.


[viii] District Energy magazine, 4th quarter 2011.

[ix] NYSERDA’s DG/CHP Data System Website Study, presented at “CHP in New York State: The Next Generation” by Richard Sweetser, Exergy Partners, June 21, 2012.


Dermot McGuigan

Energy Symbiosis LLC

18 Elwyn Lane, Woodstock, NY 12498.

Phone 1-845-399-3245.