In the heart of ancient Rome, hydraulic engineer Sergius Orata pioneered a revolutionary concept approximately 2000 years ago—a sophisticated system of centralized heating for Roman baths using renewable energy. Fast forward to the present, and Orata’s innovative spirit finds resonance in contemporary discussions about large-scale energy efficiency. Notably, a recent federal legislative proposal, the Thermal Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act, sponsored by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn), along with Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn) and Kit Bond (R-Mo), aims to incentivize the development of combined heat and power (CHP) and district energy.
Picture the building you’re in right now. Chances are it benefits from centralized heating and cooling, drawing electricity from a separate source. CHP consolidates heating and energy needs, addressing them from a single location and with a single fuel, often natural gas. District energy solutions extend this approach to multiple buildings, encompassing downtown areas, neighborhoods, or university campuses.
What renders this energy solution particularly attractive is its potential for sustainability when paired with the right fuel source, such as ground source heat. Locally, Seattle Steam exemplifies this with the introduction of a biomass boiler last year. This innovative boiler utilizes waste wood from local sources, resulting in an annual reduction of 45,000 tonnes of carbon emissions.
In Portland, two district energy projects at the neighborhood scale have been proposed, demonstrating the versatility of this approach. The Sunnyside Energy initiative envisions leveraging ground source heat to serve a local school campus and its surrounding neighborhood. Meanwhile, in the North Pearl Neighborhood, the City of Portland views district energy as a viable solution for potential new growth.
Rep. McCollum’s proposed legislation broadens the scope of the renewable energy tax credit to encompass thermal energy production, offering substantial benefits to most district energy producers and fostering the initiation of new projects. The bill also expands tax-exempt bonding for capital costs associated with thermal energy, demonstrating a commitment to facilitating the financial aspects of these initiatives. Moreover, it amplifies the Department of Energy’s Energy Sustainability and Efficiency grant program, ensuring comprehensive support for large-scale thermal projects.
As modern leaders contemplate and legislate solutions for our evolving energy landscape, they draw inspiration from the ingenious concepts of visionaries like Sergius Orata. The proposed legislation not only renews the focus on district energy but also propels it into a new era—one where ancient wisdom meets contemporary sustainability challenges.
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