Ahead of the Curve?
David W. Wade, PE, President, RDA Engineering Inc.
Editor’s Note: "Members Speak Out" runs in
each issue of District Energy magazine. Its purpose is for a member to briefly share his/her
district energy experiences and opinions - and
obtain feedback from fellow members. If you
have comments on this column, please email
David Wade at the address below - or email
IDEA with your response for publication in the
If you picked up this article hoping to
get a pat on the back, you can stop
reading now. Instead, this article is
meant as a challenge and call to action.
The news media is full of articles about
who is ‘ahead of the curve’ or how to ‘get
ahead of the curve.’ What does that mean?
Well, in today’s competitive marketplace it
means thinking about what people will
want and need to buy in the future – not
what they are buying today. It means
adopting technology that is on the cutting
edge; it means taking action before people
realize such action is necessary or before
government legislation requires it. It also
means answering the question, What is
the next big thing?
Today’s energy customers certainly want
the lowest-priced reliable energy sources for
their homes and businesses. In the future,
however, there will be growing demand
for energy that comes from renewable
sources, concerns about global warming,
realization that imported fuels reduce our
nation’s security and a greater understanding of sustainability. To be competitive in
the future – and get ahead of the curve –
district energy must formulate strategies
to address each of these issues and incorporate them into our business models.
District energy is largely a technology
that is out of sight and out of mind.
Regrettably, the one part of our industry
that is in public view is usually the central
plant with its smokestack or cooling towers.
The general public does not realize that
millions of building square feet can be
heated and cooled from that one small
plant. By contrast, the energy-efficiency
and sustainability of a wind turbine field
is more obvious; people can immediately
see that electricity is being generated
using non-polluting and renewable wind
Our task is to develop behind-
the-scenes efficiencies and social/
economic value that will position
the district energy industry ahead
of conventional energy systems
building systems have little or no hope of
competing with district energy. Imagine an
office building using wood chips or coal. The
large-scale energy plants associated with district energy offer many opportunities to burn
coal (an indigenous resource), biofuels or
even municipal refuse in an environmentally
acceptable manner. Coal and biomass can
stabilize delivered energy prices. Customers
may be willing to pay a premium for energy
from municipal waste knowing that a waste-to-energy plant contributes to energy security
and solves environmental problems associated
Another area that deserves our attention is the technical part of our business.
True or not, district energy is viewed by
some as an old-fashioned technology.
Bold ideas and substantial financial commitment will be required to position our
industry for the future. Technical ideas
which make use of state-of-the-art engineering and energy efficiency improvements
include conversion of steam distribution to
hot water distribution, condensing boilers,
low-temperature chilled-water systems, ice
and thermal storage systems, recovery of
waste heat from industrial processes and
combined heat and power, use of large
high-efficiency heat pumps, and seasonal
storage in confined aquifers. These and
other technology changes will benefit customers economically and environmentally.
There are many opportunities to get
ahead of the curve within the district
energy industry. Business school books are
full of examples of companies and industries that failed to look to the future and recognize changes going on around them. It is
hoped that we will anticipate the needs
and desires of our future customers and
commit to meeting their demands.
District energy systems will never have
the public visibility that solar energy, wind
turbines and biomass enjoy. Therefore, our
task is to develop behind-the-scenes efficiencies and social/economic value that will
position the district energy industry ahead
of conventional energy systems. We must
then communicate these benefits directly
to our customers. With that in mind, here
are a few suggestions on how we should
be positioning ourselves to get ahead of the
curve in the areas of fuels and technology.
One of the best opportunities for district energy to shine is in the area of fuels.
Our central plants can burn solid fuels,
renewable fuels, biomass, coal, etc. In fact,
when it comes to fuel flexibility, individual
David W. Wade, PE, is
president of RDA Engineering
Inc. in Atlanta and has been
an IDEA member for more
than 20 years. He has served
on IDEA’s board and is a past
chair of ASHRAE’s national
technical committees dealing
with Building Steam and Hot Water Systems
and District Heating and Cooling. Wade may be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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