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In with the new: Retrofitting leads the sustainability charge in the UAE

EXCLUSIVE: Etihad Esco CEO, Ali Al Jassim, and chairman of EmiratesGBC, Saeed Al Abbar, share their expert insights

Retrofitting leads the sustainability charge in the UAE
Pixabay
Retrofitting leads the sustainability charge in the UAE

The drive towards sustainability and energy savings has etched an indelible mark into the UAE construction sector’s narrative in 2019, catalysed by the country’s endorsement of the ‘Zero Carbon Buildings for All’ initiative.

Launched at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, the initiative is backed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and recognised by the UN Secretary General. It challenges companies, cities, states, and regions to reach net zero operating emissions by 2030.

In order to attain this feat, the UAE has had to evaluate some of the prime causes of energy consumption and carbon emissions – and at the root of the problem lies: Buildings.

This includes buildings that have been constructed as well as those that are still in the project pipeline.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), currently occupied buildings and the construction sector together account for 36% of the global energy consumption. The buildings construction sector is responsible for nearly 40% of total direct and indirect CO2 emissions.

Taking cognizance of the detrimental impact of buildings on the environment, the emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Ras Al Khaimah have all begun to actively transition into smart and sustainable cities. These cities have turned the spotlight on the energy efficiency of their buildings, specifically existing ones.

At the centre of that spotlight lies the protagonist of this article – retrofitting – which refers to measures being taken to replace legacy energy and utility systems with new technologies.

These technologies not only reduce energy consumption and decrease carbon emissions, but also lower maintenance costs, improve safety, enhance productivity, and boost property valuations.

Etihad Esco CEO, Ali Al Jassim [Photograph supplied]

Leading the charge

Government entities in the UAE have taken a lead role in retrofitting buildings, spurred by the Dubai Supreme Council of Energy’s (DSCE) commitment to reducing carbon emissions in the emirate by 30% before 2030.

In fact, Etihad Energy Services Company (Etihad Esco), a company owned by Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa), has committed to retrofitting 30,000 buildings in Dubai by 2030 – and it is already well on its way to achieving that target.

In an exclusive conversation with Construction Week, the chief executive officer of Etihad Esco, Ali Al Jassim, said: “Etihad Esco’s target of retrofitting 30,000 buildings in Dubai by 2030 is set at an average of 2,000 buildings annually. In the past couple of years, we have successfully exceeded the target of 2,000 per year. By the end of 2019, we will have completed 4,500 buildings.”

“We have approximately 4,500 more in the pipeline,” Al Jassim added.

“By 2020 or early 2021, we will have completed retrofitting at 9,000 facilities. This gives you an indication that within a couple of years, we will complete one-third of our overall target.”

Construction Week reported in July 2019 that Etihad Esco completed the installation of 15,000 photovoltaic panels at Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 2. The solar project has a capacity of 5 megawatt peak (MWp) and will generate 7.5m kWh of energy every year.

More importantly, this project alone will reduce 3,243 metric tonnes (t) of CO2 emissions – equivalent to planting 53,617 tree seedlings for 10 years, or keeping 688 vehicles off the roads.

Commenting on the successful delivery of the project, Al Jassim said: “We have already delivered Phase 1 of the Dubai Airports retrofitting project, which comprised work at Terminal 1, 2, and 3. The project has been completed safely, with more than 400,000 hours without LTI.

He added: “We are excited about Phase 2 of the project for Dubai Airports, as well as other lighting projects for the airport. There are approximately 250,000 traditional lights that need to be replaced with LED lights. It is a huge project and is a one-of-a-kind in the region.”

Etihad Esco has also announced plans to install solar photovoltaic panels on the roofs of 5,000 Emirati homes.

It has already completed site surveys and the onboarding of contractors for the project. The retrofitting effort is in line with Dewa’s plans to install photovoltaic panels on up to 10% of the total homes owned by UAE citizens.

This seems to be the right approach given the fact that high energy demand makes decarbonising the entire grid a tedious short-term task, while moving into new energy-efficient homes doesn’t seem as plausible as the alternative of retrofitting current homes.

In addition, Etihad Esco’s efforts to power homes with solar panels contributes to Dewa’s target of meeting 75% of its power needs with clean energy by 2050.

Chairman of EmiratesGBC, Saeed Al Abbar [Photograph: Supplied]

Collaborative efforts

Government entities are not alone in their move toward green buildings. People, forums, and organisations in the UAE are also heeding the nation’s call to focus on net zero carbon buildings.

In fact, the Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC), an independent forum aimed at promoting green building practices, in partnership with the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Dubai Chamber) has been raising awareness on the benefits of building retrofit with its “Technical Guidelines for Retrofitting Existing Buildings”.

Speaking exclusively to Construction Week, chairman of EmiratesGBC, Saeed Al Abbar, said: “The advantage of building retrofit is that it contributes to energy savings, reduces the environmental impact of a building, and brings huge financial benefits to a building’s ongoing operations.”

Calling on government and private entities to work together towards a greener future, Al Abbar said: “It is important to promote public private partnerships that will accelerate building retrofitting.”

Both Al Jassim and  Al Abbar pointed to project finance as a concern that used to hinder the retrofitting sector, but they both agreed on the fact that financial hurdles have been overcome.

Al Abbar said: “While project finance is a matter of concern for many, the long-term value of retrofit outpaces the initial costs. Policy guidelines that support project financing for retrofits will support it.”

“The challenge today is not as much in project financing but on the need for industry stakeholders to go further into retrofitting and not look at only the easier tasks – such as lighting. That is why it is important to look at deep retrofitting to achieve the net zero goals.”

Creating awareness on greener buildings and promoting the spirit of public private partnerships, EmiratesGBC has also begun offering a Building Retrofit Training Programme in partnership with the DSCE and renewable energy firm Masdar.

Picture courtesy: Pixabay [representative image]

Money ... and more

Another strong benefit of retrofitting that cannot be overlooked is the considerable cost savings it assures in the long run.

For instance, Etihad Esco’s retrofitting work during Phase 1 of the Dubai International Airport project is expected to result in savings of $898,425 (AED3.3m) for Dubai Airports, in addition to reducing the existing energy load at Terminal 2 by approximately 29%.

Commenting on the impact of Etihad Esco’s retrofitting projects, Al Jassim told Construction Week: “By the end of 2019, we will complete more than 30 solar, lighting, and water retrofitting projects, which include more than 4,500 facilities.”

“Retrofitting has resulted in more than AED100m in savings in the past couple of years. In 2017, Etihad Esco saved its clients more than AED40m, and in 2018, we saved them AED60m,” Al Jassim said.

Furthermore, when South Energy won a contract in October 2019 to replace 4,550 streetlights with energy-efficient LED units inside the 145km2 Dubai South development – home to the Expo 2020 Dubai site – it was revealed that the project would save $612,580 (AED2.3m) in maintenance costs each year. Yet, there’s more to it than money.

The construction industry – which has historically lagged in the adoption of technology – is now receiving a push in the right direction.

“Retrofitting is helping the industry adopt more technology – this is part of our mandate. While we look at retrofitting for sustainability reasons; and while we look at retrofitting to save our clients’ money; we also maintain our vision to have the latest technological equipment for retrofitting,” Al Jassim said. “The need to adopt and implement cutting-edge technology is especially important within retrofitting, because technology in this sector is changing at a very fast pace.”

In fact, the retrofitting sector has advanced to a point where discussions around real-time data analytics are becoming commonplace.

A conversation that began with the buzzwords of smart sensors, smart water meters, and smart utility networks, has grown much bigger. Companies are now exploring the ability to gather real-time data using enhanced sensors and analyse it using machine-learning systems. This will then not only help to detect problems, and troubleshoot them, but also create new and innovative methods of managing water and energy resources.

The Etihad Esco CEO said: “We are discussing the use of the latest technologies to monitor our projects. We are currently doing this in some projects, but we have some big future plans, especially with the use of IoT and advanced monitoring systems.”

With cutting-edge research pointing to self-healing materials and nanotechnology the future of retrofitting could well mean more retrofitting.

According to property consultancy JLL, with start-of-the-art innovations becoming cheaper and more mainstream, investors still face the risk that buildings undergoing retrofitting in 2019 could be out of date by 2025.

Ongoing work on New York’s Empire State Building, which had an extensive $550 million retrofit in 2009, is testament to the fact that retrofitting is not a one-off exercise. On the contrary, its a continual, periodical process.

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