India is well-positioned to conduct a technological leap to district cooling: Thermalfrost

While providing an in-depth assessment of the District Energy market in India and abroad, Steve Donaldson, President and CEO, Thermalfrost Intl. speaks to Ranjana Konatt, Editor (Brand Positioning), on the scope for growth, bottlenecks, the role of schemes, and the many opportunities to invest in India.

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Tell us about Thermalfrost, the company’s contribution to the District Cooling space; What are the shifts in terms of the solutions being offered by the company, how are the solutions likely to shape the market in India? 

District Cooling solutions are popular in Canada and North America as we see an increasing demand for efficiency and sustainability. However, District Cooling solutions have markedly more opportunity for growth in a country like India, and this can be due to several factors. First, India has not invested substantive resources on interconnecting grid infrastructures between major cities, rural towns and smaller communities (as we have in Canada). This means that India is well-positioned to conduct a technological leap to District Cooling, as they do not need to rely on existing (and expensive) interconnecting grid infrastructure as we do in Canada. This phenomenon is similar to cell phones in developing countries in Asia. Rather than investing substantive resources in telecommunications infrastructure, many countries were able to transition directly to wireless solutions. In this respect, India is a huge market opportunity for adopting District Cooling solutions in the near term. As such, Thermalfrost District Cooling technology is well-suited for immediate adoption throughout India as we enter the market in 2020.

Elaborate on the importance of government policy and regulation within the scope of District Cooling?

Private industry is naturally guided by public policy. Activities in the private sector can be qualitatively enabled by sound public policy. Canadian public institutions and policymakers have been key enablers for private sector companies offering District Cooling solutions, as Canada strives to adopt reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions standards as delineated in the Paris Agreement 2016. The important work on climate change and the resultant technological changes must be shared by both public and private stakeholders. Public policy must set the conditions within which private industry can offer technological solutions, and private industry must conduct the research and development necessary to generate and commercialize those technological solutions. It is a shared responsibility, which is working very well in Canada. Based on our analysis and in-country engagement in India over the last several years, India is indeed well-positioned to rapidly adopt emergent technological solutions offering District Cooling. It is incumbent on private entities such as Thermalfrost to continue to directly engage India government policymakers to ensure they are informed of the latest technological solutions that are available on the market. This is a symbiotic relationship in India between companies like Thermalfrost and India policymakers, and a relationship that is working very well. Thermalfrost has established and will continue to nurture our relationships within the Government of India, both at the Federal and State levels.

Talk about absorption chiller technology by Thermalfrost, the aspect of it using zero green-house gas in the compressors you operate; Elaborate on the refrigerant being used… 

The primary difference between conventional chillers and absorption chillers is that conventional chillers are electromechanical (and use large amounts of grid electricity) whereas absorption chillers use a chemical process and require only a nominal amount of electricity (for a circulation pump). As such, conventional chillers produce harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) whereas absorption chillers such as the chillers offered by Thermalfrost produce zero GHG emissions. Further, as Thermalfrost chillers do not require large amounts of electricity that conventional chillers require, the operating cost of a Thermalfrost chiller is 1/10th that of a conventional chiller. The savings in electricity are substantial – as is the reduction in GHGs. The refrigerant used by absorption chillers (including Thermalfrost) is ammonia. Ammonia is rapidly replacing existing chemicals used in conventional chillers (R22 for example) which emit GHGs and are very harmful to the environment. India is set to drive the global ammonia industry growth from planned and announced plants between 2019 and 2030, contributing around 20% of the total ammonia capacity additions in the world. In effect, ammonia is a safer alternative to existing refrigerants used in India, and further has the benefit of emitting zero GHGs.

Do you foresee India as a market wherein District Cooling could be effectively used in the future? Even though it is not a need per-say, what are the corresponding adjustments that will have to be made to the technology you offer to suit the climate and other environmental conditions.

India presents opportunities for District Cooling applications. India has not invested heavily in electrical grid infrastructure compared to other countries, which presents India an advantage as they adopt District Cooling applications. This is because India does not have to incorporate future cooling applications to an existing, expensive grid infrastructure – in effect, India can choose to adopt District Cooling applications here and when it wants throughout the country. India has flexibility during this process. Further, the Government of India is very progressive and a fast adopter of new technologies and innovative solutions. Finally, India is actively seeking out cooling solutions further and further away from city centres (in-district applications). One such district application is Thermal Energy Storage (TES) which can be in the form of ice. TES can be used for many applications, including residential cooling, manufacturing cooling as cold chain storage for agriculture, food, and pharmaceuticals. In essence, India has a verified need for district cooling solutions, and Thermalfrost is excited to fulfil some of this requirement with our district cooling applications. As is normal with any new market, Thermalfrost technology will need to be adapted to the India marketplace. This is why we rely on our channel partners – specifically India-based system integrators to provide the technical expertise to customise Thermalfrost chillers to the specific market demands and requirements of India consumers.

In terms of installation capacity, the design of conventional mechanical cooling systems, does district cooling demand more in terms of urban planning? How crucial is stakeholder engagement, especially among the public and private sector, developers, consultants, contractors and technology providers to ensure efficient plant design and operations that are in place?

Conventional electro-mechanical (compressor) cooling systems require large amounts of grid electricity to operate. As such, conventional mechanical cooling systems need to be planned around access to the electrical grid. They also emit GHGs, are noisy during operation, and contribute to climate change. As you can imagine, the installation of a conventional mechanical cooling system in district cooling requires stakeholder engagement and approval, both from the public and private sector. In contrast, Thermalfrost absorption chillers require very little electricity to operate (only enough electricity for a small circulation pump). The operating expenses of Thermalfrost chillers are 1/10th that of conventional chillers, as we require only a fraction of the electricity. As such, Thermalfrost chillers can easily be installed off the grid, and do not need to be planned around grid access. Of course, any district cooling application requires some level of stakeholder engagement, however as Thermalfrost chillers do not emit any GHGs, are very quiet during operation, and do not contribute to climate change our applications are much more readily accepted into urban planning designs.

Talk to us on the projects you are involved within India; what are the environmental stressors, the nature of challenges that have presented itself, and how have you dealt with it?

Thermalfrost has several planned demonstrations in India in 2020. These demonstration sites will address various sectors, including District Cooling, Agriculture and the Food Cold Chain. Waste heat sources of these demonstration sites will include biomass, solar and boiler waste heat applications. The primary environmental stressor in India is the hot climate that is experienced nearly year-round. Establishing and maintain a cold chain for fruits and vegetables, for example, requires detailed preparation and planning and the Thermalfrost technical solution is only one part of the equation. As such, Thermalfrost is teaming up with several channel partners in India, including system integrators, market representatives, distributors, dealers and consultants. Another key stakeholder for Thermalfrost is the Government of India. India government policies and programs for the cold chain are key enablers for companies like Thermalfrost, and we will continue to foster close relationships with federal and state representatives.

What makes the District Energy schemes in Denmark so successful? Could you elaborate on the structure and mechanism that paved the way for their high penetration?

The success story of district energy in Denmark is the result of several factors. The first, overarching factor is a unified goal to move to cleaner energy solutions and a reduction on the reliance on fossil fuels. This future vision is shared between the public and private sector, and in the shared values of the Denmark population. The commonality of a future vision is critical in order to change our energy behaviour. Next, Denmark made substantial investments in District Energy infrastructure – this work began as far back as 1979 when Denmark adopted its first Heat Supply Act. The lesson for us here is that reduced reliance on fossil fuels and a shift towards cleaner energy takes time, and the collective will of all sectors of the country. The rapid adoption of District Energy (heating and cooling) leads to more efficient energy production, and savings can be reinvested into other sectors of the economy, including health care and education. The benefits of District Energy are not solely financial, but they can have a meaningful impact on other important sectors of society. Denmark is an excellent example of this innovation.

Broadly speaking, are you satisfied with the compliance of signatories on the reduction of HFCs specified in the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, especially in light of many countries have set their respective national targets? Where would you say there is more room for improvement?

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is a powerful addition to the Montreal Protocol, with a goal to achieve over 80% reduction in HFC consumption by 2047. The impact of the amendment will avoid up to 0.5 °C increase in global temperature by the end of the century. The compliance of signatories is yet to be fully witnessed however, as the Kigali Amendment only came into effect on January 1st, 2019. Until we achieve zero GHG emissions, and all countries both sign on to, and adhere to the Montreal Protocol, there is of course always room for improvement. However, the Kigali Amendment and the Montreal Protocol overall are indeed positive steps that signatories have adopted in moving towards reducing GHGs and combatting climate change.

What, if any, do you foresee as the main bottleneck concerning the penetration of District Energy? Could you comment on the work being done on thermal storage? How do you view its progress?

Barriers to adoption of District Energy generally depend on which country is being discussed. The barrier to District Energy in many developed countries is the existence of an extensive electrical grid. These countries (such as Canada) have invested millions of dollars in an electrical grid, and thus are under internal pressure to continue to utilize the grid, rather than to adopt District Energy applications that do not require a grid. The most prevalent barrier to District Energy in countries that do not have grid infrastructure is a lack of technology available to provide District Energy affordably. These countries are looking for small, efficient, clean District Energy technology that can be rapidly established and entails minimal operating costs. This is the space where Thermalfrost technology comes to the fore. Another application of Thermalfrost chillers is Thermal Energy Storage (TES) – where Thermalfrost chillers can make ice from waste heat sources, the ice can be stored, and then the cooling from the ice (TES) can be consumed by the end-user during peak electricity cost hours. Rather than relying on expensive electrical energy for cooling, TES customers can use ice to provide District Cooling. District Energy, District Cooling and TES have huge potential in India. Thermalfrost will be installing demonstration projects in these three areas in 2020.

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