Transforming current and future city landscapes in Southeast Asia with District Cooling

By Sebastien Walker

Singapore's weather has become a hot topic, both figuratively and literally. In recent months, the nation has found itself at the epicentre of the regional heat challenge. Temperatures even soared as high as 37 degrees Celsius in May of this year; matching a 40-year record for the highest daily maximum temperature in the country.

In the face of soaring temperatures, Singapore, as well as the larger Southeast Asian region, faces a major challenge in providing effective cooling solutions for citizens to cope with the relentless heat. This task is further exacerbated by the region's increasing urbanisation. Projections indicate that by 2050, 70 percent of the ASEAN population will reside in cities, amplifying the "urban heat island effect". As clusters of tightly packed buildings in these growing urban centres absorb and radiate heat, the demand for energy to cool neighbouring structures surges, creating an upward spiral of increasing temperatures. This is a trend that has unfortunately been worsened by energy-intensive traditional cooling systems.

Moreover, the rising electricity demand from cooling alone is projected to require around 200 GW of additional generation capacity by 2040. This could lead to cooling, fuelled by urbanisation, taking up to a 30 percent share of the region's peak electricity demand. With the region’s reliance on fossil fuel-based energy systems, the result could have a devastating environmental impact.  

In the face of these challenges, it is critical for the region to implement sustainable cooling solutions that can achieve two key goals: provide an optimal temperature comfort level for its citizens, and minimise the energy required for cooling.

Unlocking the Advantages of District Cooling

As the region looks to tackle its cooling challenges, one notable solution gaining traction is district cooling. District cooling is a centralised approach to urban cooling that offers several advantages. By consolidating the production and distribution of cooling, it eliminates the requirement for individual air conditioning units that place strain on the power grid and contribute to carbon emissions. In comparison to these standalone split unit systems, district cooling systems (DCS) effectively alleviate pressure on power grids and reduce carbon emissions. DCS achieve this by utilising a network of insulated pipes to distribute chilled water from a central plant, efficiently serving multiple buildings from a single cooling source. This centralised approach allows for economies of scale and optimal use of energy resources, resulting in higher overall efficiency.

Beyond energy efficiency, district cooling brings additional benefits. Without individual cooling units, cities can reclaim valuable rooftop, facade, and basement spaces, unlocking a realm of possibilities for sustainable urban development. Notably, this makes space for rooftop solar panel installations – which not only addresses land scarcity, but also helps meet growing cities' electricity needs in a more sustainable manner. These spaces can also be transformed into green areas that provide numerous environmental benefits such as improved air quality and a healthier and more sustainable urban ecosystem.

Moreover, DCS presents economic advantages amidst rising energy prices. In Singapore, regulated electricity tariffs increased by 20.8 percent from an average of 22.1 cents per kWh in 2020 to an average of 26.7 cents per kWh in 2022. As a result, DCS, which is much more energy efficient than traditional cooling systems, emerges as an affordable and practical option for businesses. They offer long-term cost savings, lower lifetime project costs, and bring substantial carbon and energy savings, enabling businesses to cut costs in the long run while aligning with sustainability goals.

The Built City Challenge

DCS presents a solution for both new projects, known as greenfield sites, and pre-existing – or brownfield – developments. The implementation of district cooling is naturally more streamlined in new projects, where the planning and design phase can readily incorporate provisions for a DCS. In contrast, retrofitting existing buildings, which is a more common requirement in Singapore, with centralised cooling infrastructure is a complex task that requires collaboration among stakeholders. Building owners, developers, and tenants must come together in a shared vision.

However, it is possible and necessary to implement DCS in built-up areas of established cities (a prime example being Paris with its DCS serving the Louvre Museum), and the key lies in education and awareness. Businesses must be made aware of the flexibility and long-term cost benefits that district cooling solutions bring to the table. 

The Role of Governments 

At the forefront of the transformative journey towards sustainable cooling, governments in the region are playing a pivotal role. 

Through a mix of direct and indirect engagement, Singapore is leading the way in creating favourable conditions for the adoption of DCS. Issuing tenders for the implementation of DCS in upcoming developments such as the Punggol Digital District as a means of direct engagement. While the implementation of the Singapore Green Plan is an example of how the government leveraged indirect engagement to set energy efficiency targets (e.g. Green Mark), constraints, and criteria that organisations must adhere to, which further promotes adoption of green technologies. Together, these measures are tangibly advancing Singapore’s commitment to sustainable urban development. 

By setting ambitious net-zero targets and providing incentives for district cooling adoption, Singapore and other countries are showing their resolve to aggressively pursue sustainable urban cooling initiatives on multiple fronts. 

Outlook for District Cooling in Southeast Asia

While challenges persist, the future of district cooling in Southeast Asia holds great promise. The region is increasingly recognising the urgent need for sustainable urban development and the pivotal role that district cooling plays in achieving it. 

With increasing awareness and support from governments, the stage is set for widespread adoption of district cooling. By continuing to educate businesses and implement supportive initiatives, Southeast Asian cities are paving the way towards reducing their carbon footprints, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and creating vibrant, liveable environments for their citizens. 

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