A top idea

The Middle East Chapter of the International District Energy Association is now fully operational, but how does the sector differ in this region from that in the USA? IDEA president Robert Thornton discusses the industry challenges with Alison Luke.


Despite being based in the USA, Robert Thornton is now a well recognised face in the Middle East's district cooling sector. He has been the compere at two major events for the sector this year in the region, but it is not simply his presence at these events that has had him noticed, it's his genuine passion for the district energy industry. As president of the International District Energy Association (IDEA) Thornton dedicates his time to raising the profile of the sector globally and has also carved out a successful professional career in the industry.

Thornton has held a number of positions in his professional career that have seen him launch and develop district cooling systems across the USA. He has also been an active participant in energy related and customer-orientated professional organisations during this time and became a member of IDEA in 1987. In 2000 he was named president of the Association and with the growth of the sector in the Middle East, he has taken a keen interest in seeing its effectiveness fully recognised in the region.

If there is a shift in electricity tariffs we want to be involved.

But what are the main differences between the Middle East's district cooling sector and that in the USA and how can IDEA contribute on a local level in the region? "The pace of growth here is substantially greater [than in the USA]; the size of the plants initially is larger and the interest in district cooling is profound here in the region," stresses Thornton. "We've had district cooling operations in the US since 1962; there are systems operating here since 1999, but the pace and the scale exceeds our industry.

This pace of growth is undoubtedly a direct result of the rapid developments in the region's real estate industry. The vast number of project planned and underway has created opportunities for the implementation of district cooling. The scale of work available also led to the formation of the Middle East Chapter of IDEA, which was launched at IDEA's International District Cooling Conference in Abu Dhabi during January 2007. Now fully established, the Chapter will be based in Abu Dhabi and initially led by Rita Chahoud, PR and communications manager of district cooling provider Tabreed, who will serve as executive director. "[Rita has] been in our industry for nearly ten years and has been active in IDEA for that whole time...she'll serve as a focal point [for the Chapter]," explains Thornton.

Tabreed CEO Dany Safi will serve as the regional manager and is the official sponsor of the Chapter for government approvals. In addition, a steering committee has been formed that will serve in an advisory capacity. "[This will comprise] senior industry players with a keen insight to the opportunities and challenges and we expect that they will be a great council to principally help us with priorities," explains Thornton.

The Chapter will follow the bylaws of IDEA, but is intended to adapt to meet the specifc challenges and needs of the local sector. "In practice we want to be responsive to the unique challenges of such a rapidly growing industry in the region, so the steering committee will really help to address the members' needs and make sure that we focus our somewhat limited resources on the most important challenges to the industry," Thornton stresses.

Chapter for the future

The US headquarters will provide full support or the Chapter Thornton assures, however overall it will operate as an independent entity. "The Chapter will have in many ways its own mission and budget, they'll produce an annual plan for us and we'll agree on a budget and they'll implement that plan," states Thornton.

In terms of public forums, it is anticipated that the Middle East Chapter will host at least one major conference annually, which will generally cover policy objectives and the larger industry related challenges and opportunities. In addition, annual symposiums may also be held to provide more detailed technical presentations and discussions on the processes and technologies relevant to the industry.

"[The Chapter has] grown remarkably in a very short period of time and we expect it to continue to grow at a very strong pace," stresses Thornton. "[In the long-term] we envision the Middle East Chapter supporting the region; it's not just the UAE, it's really the whole Gulf and it's from here to Malaysia, Singapore, China and Japan," he adds. The representation of 27 different countries at the IDEA International District Cooling Symposium held in Dubai in October was a clear sign of the wider interest in the market.

But for the sector to continue to grow in scale and effectiveness, certain changes are needed at both industry and government level. "A couple of things would have impact," states Thornton. "As an industry we're very active in positioning district energy as a tool to address greenhouse gas and provide energy efficiency. We do that on an international level...the points of reference may vary from the Middle East to Europe to the US, but climate change is in many cases a front-burner issue for our whole industry," he stresses.

"Energy efficiency is also a universal issue. Now that oil is trading at almost US $100 a barrel, everyone is keenly interested in harvesting the most they can out of all the commodity they consume," adds Thornton.

A third area likely to affect the sector in the region is the relationship between district cooling and the electricity infrastructure stresses Thornton. "We'd like to work closely with the electricity companies so that they understand how district cooling can shape loads, shift peaks, provide highly reliable air conditioning and we'd like for them to understand how to interact more effectively with district cooling providers," he states. "If there is a move towards night and day or time of day or just a shift in electricity tariffs we would like to be involved in that discussion so that the value of district energy is adequately considered," he adds.

In the US, IDEA works very closely with the Government and Thornton personally engages with the US Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency as well as other federal agencies and frequently supports industry legislative initiatives in Washington. It is hoped that this level of governmental involvement can be repeated in the Middle East in order to ensure the effectiveness of district cooling application in the region states Thornton.

The signs of this relationship are already good, with Dr Mohammed Saeed Al Khindi, UAE Minister of Environment and Water providing the opening address to the October Symposium. "We're thrilled that he understands and appreciates district cooling as an environmental utility service...and we've been very pleased with the appreciation and the interest of government leaders and their recognition that district cooling is an essential infrastructure strategy for these rapidly growing economies," states Thornton.

One of the biggest challenges to the sector is likely to come from that which is actually enabling its growth: the continued pace of growth of the real estate market. "Keeping pace with the real estate community so that investments are timed properly [is a big challenge] and there are industry challenges in terms of gaining qualified and trained people to support such a rapidly expanding industry," stresses Thornton.

Idea in brief

The International District Energy Association (IDEA) was formed in the USA in 1909 as a non-profit trade association for the district energy industry. Today it serves around 700 members worldwide from its headquarters near Boston, USA.

For 95 consecutive years it has hosted an annual conference and trade show. The next IDEA Middle East Chapter conference is scheduled to be held on 19-22 October 2008 at the Hotel Intercontinental, Festival City, Dubai. For more information on IDEA and its future events see www.districtenergy.org.

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