The first customers of Brisbane’s CBD district cooling system will be signing up by the year’s end and the Australian-first initiative has the scope to be duplicated across the city and beyond, according to Brisbane’s sustainability agency CitySmart.

CitySmart chief executive Neil Horrocks said the initial arrangement would cover the CBD of Brisbane – virtually the peninsula of Brisbane from Ann Street down to the Botanic Gardens.

“But the beauty of this is once we have stood this project up, we’ll have a template to be able to create additional precincts,” he said.

There’s a range of precincts that create potential opportunities including Southbank/South Brisbane, Newstead/Fortitude Valley and Spring Hill.

“All of those areas have good, dense populations of commercial buildings that lend themselves to these sorts of systems.”

District cooling systems chill water in a central plant during off-peak periods and pipe it into buildings within close proximity for airconditioning during the daytime. They eliminate the space requirements in buildings for on-site chillers as well as rooftop spaces for cooling towers. Most importantly, a district cooling system results in significant energy savings.

The Brisbane project is expected to result in energy savings of 10 to 30 per cent for individual buildings as well as CO2 emission reductions of up to 24,000 tonnes a year.

“For a place like Brisbane that has an enormous thermal load in the city during summer in daytime, all of that load has the potential to be shifted into a night-time load when the city is turned off so it’s a great thing for electricity demand,” Horrocks said.

Peak energy demands are expected to drop by up to 20 megawatts a year.

“It’s also wonderful for energy efficiency because with a centralised plant – given that you’re not chilling a building; you’re chilling a tankful of water – you can tune your chillers to work highly efficiently, almost like the highway cycle of a car.”

District cooling systems have many benefits for individual buildings such as reducing water use in cooling towers, recovering prime real estate and removing the Legionnaires’ disease risk to a great extent.

French company Engie will build and operate the plant over a long-term period – the contract is yet to finalised but it could be for as long as 50-100 years. The company operates similar plants in Paris and London and is in the process of commissioning one in Christchurch.

Such systems already operate on some Australian university campuses, such as James Cook University in Cairns, but have never been utilised across a CBD.

“The challenge with something like this, and the reason it hasn’t been done in a capital city in Australia before, is there’s lots of complexities,” Horrocks said.

“Once you are moving between land owners, and running pipes in the street, you’ve got jurisdictions that cover the council and the state and you’ve got a whole lot of revenue issues and complexities around that.”

The planning process has taken five long years.

“We’ve now reached a point where we are optimistic that by the end of this calendar year we’ll be signing the first customers to our program.”

Spreading the message

CitySmart was originally established as the sustainability arm of Brisbane City Council, the largest local government area in Australia, to help residents and businesses understand their impact on the environment through electricity usage, waste recycling and transport.

Recently, it has broadened its scope to work further afield, taking its Reduce your Juice program to northern Queensland to 5000 residents with new smart meters. It is also working in cities in NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Industry is responsive

The organisation has 30-odd commercial partnerships and, according to Horrocks, corporate social responsibility is growing with big partners such as Cleanaway getting behind its programs and becoming “earnestly interested” in improving waste streams across Australia.

City water distributor Queensland Urban Utilities is aligned with CitySmart’s goals and so too Sekisui House Australia, which is building the West Village development at West End.

“They are entirely focused on creating a sustainable way of life for their tenants and their commercial tenants so they are very keen to work with us to find ways to do that,” Horrocks said.

“We are really starting to get some great commercial engagement in the city.”

Small and medium businesses are also keen to make a difference.

The Watt Savers digital program provided online audit tools and workshops to assist business owners plan projects such as lighting upgrades and solar panels. Small businesses don’t necessarily make changes immediately.

“Businesses don’t take action now but when they are able to,” Horrocks said. It’s a matter of finding the funds and the available time. So months after completing the program, the facilitators are hearing from small businesses who are now ready to act and are keen for advice and product information.

Upcoming waste and strata projects

New programs are in the wings, with CitySmart working in partnership with a range of people and organisations on key sustainability issues.

“I probably could say at the highest level that we are working on a project to help small businesses find better uses for their waste,” Horrocks said. “And we’re investigating how we could help strata title owners to make their buildings more sustainable.”