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Buildings and Cities

District Heating

Dutch king Willem-Alexander attends the opening of BioWarmteCentrale (bioheating station) in Purmerend, the Netherlands. It provides 80 percent green energy for 25,000 people, powered by 110,000 tons of biomass per year.

In district heating and cooling (DHC) systems, a central plant channels hot and/or cool water via a network of underground pipes to many buildings. Heat exchangers and heat pumps separate buildings from the distribution network, so that heating and cooling are centralized while thermostats remain independent. Rather than having small boilers and chilling units whir away at each structure, DHC provides thermal energy collectively—and more efficiently.

Copenhagen, Denmark, is the global standout in DHC. It now meets 98 percent of heating demand with the world’s largest district system, fueled with waste heat from coal-fired power plants and waste-to-energy plants. (In the coming years, biomass will replace all coal use.) Since 2010, Copenhagen has also tapped the waters of the Øresund Strait for district cooling.

Compared to individual heating and cooling systems, Tokyo’s district system cuts energy use and carbon dioxide emissions in half—a powerful example of DHC’s potential. Although a tried and tested technology, it is still new and unfamiliar in many parts of the world, and high up-front costs and system complexity continue to be obstacles. Municipal governments play the most essential role in taking this solution to scale.


New York Steam Company…Birdsill Holly: Gardiner, Beth. “Britain Looks to an Old Heating Technology in Fight to Cut Emissions.” New York Times. September 2, 2009.

University of Toronto: Freeman, Bill. The New Urban Agenda: The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Toronto: Dundurn, 2015.

Soviets; Nordic cities: Johnson, Charlotte. “District Heating: A Hot Idea Whose Time Has Come.” The Guardian, November 18, 2014.

Copenhagen…world’s largest district system: Gerdes, Justin. “Copenhagen’s Ambitious Push to Be Carbon Neutral by 2025.” Yale Environment 360. April 11, 2013; UNEP. District Energy in Cities: Unlocking the Potential of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 2015.

[impact of] Tokyo’s district system: UNEP, District Energy.

district cooling…in Paris: IEA. Linking Heat and Electricity Systems: Co-Generation and District Heating and Cooling Solutions for a Clean Energy Future. Paris: International Energy Agency, 2014; UNEP, District Energy.

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