District Energy and Eco-Districts



As carbon reduction targets become increasingly more aggressive, older and smaller urban buildings are likely to encounter particular challenges in installing the advanced heating, cooling and renewable energy systems needed to meet these goals because of limitations related to their size and structure. The Green Lab is advancing the use of district energy solutions that will make it more affordable and feasible to transition older neighborhoods to cleaner sources of energy.  This work focuses on the development of eco-district planning tools to help demonstrate the scale of aggregated demand in older neighborhoods of fragmented ownership, and in turn attract funding for sustainable infrastructure projects such as district energy. The Green Lab is working with a range of national partners on its policy and advocacy work, and works with selected local sites where specific research, tools and policy can be developed and field-tested for future wider dissemination.

Learn More about District Energy

District energy is not a new idea—many cities developed downtown steam heating systems in the early 1900s. However the benefits of district energy were overlooked during the latter half of the 20th century, when energy and land were cheap, and development was sprawling rather than compact. Now communities are rediscovering the potential of district energy systems in light of the current era of urbanization, energy insecurity, and climate change mitigation.

In general terms, district energy systems provide for the heating and hot water needs of a community of buildings, which are connected through a network of pipes under the streets that carry hot water from a centralized energy plant. District energy can also provide cooling services, through the use of a similar piping infrastructure with chilled water. The thermal energy required can be generated from a diverse range of sources, including natural gas boilers, ground-source heat pumps, combustion plants that burn wood or other forms of biomass, and sources of waste heat that can be captured from power plants, industrial facilities, sewers, and waste water plants.

Learn More about Preservation Green Lab’s Research and Findings

After completing extensive research and analysis of district energy systems, the PGL released two reports on the topic in the fall of 2010. The first report, The Role of District Energy in Greening Existing Neighborhoods: A Primer for Policy Makers and Local Government Officials, provides a detailed look at how district energy can be a critical element of a successful community energy plan for existing neighborhoods. Click here for the executive summary. Addressing policy and decision makers, it describes what district energy is, why it matters, how to develop district energy systems, and case studies and examples from around North America that illustrate the crucial role of city governments in promoting and implementing district energy.

The second report, District Energy in West Union, Iowa: Integrating a New District Energy System into a Historic Main Street Community, explores the essential elements of integrating new district energy systems in an established neighborhood of West Union, so that other communities can identify similar opportunities to improve energy performance and foster investment in already compact communities that contribute to reduced resource consumption.

Key findings of this research include:

  • District energy can help established communities of existing buildings achieve lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
  • District energy can improve the cost-effectiveness of a community’s private and public investments in efficiency and clean energy, and accelerate the pace of improvements over time.
  • City governments play a critical role in district energy development.