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Thermal energy networks are future of clean heating (Guest Opinion by Julie Tighe & Alberto Bianchetti)

A graphic shows how a thermal energy network connects buildings with underground water pipes to capture waste heat and distribute zero-emission heating and cooling. (Provided image)

Julie Tighe is the president of the League of Conservation Voters, based in Albany. Alberto Bianchetti is the regional director of external and customer affairs for National Grid’s Central New York Division.

Here in New York, we are lucky to have citizens, activists, labor unions, elected officials, scientists and businesses alike who are committed to leading the way toward a clean energy future. When a new technology emerges to make our energy system cleaner and stronger, New Yorkers are eager to grab the reins. That’s what we’re doing now with thermal energy networks, or TENs.

Thermal energy networks are a clean and efficient way to heat and cool buildings. They use existing sources of thermal energy, such as waste heat or the earth, to enhance heating and cooling systems. They use heat pumps to provide heating and cooling similar to single-loop geothermal systems, but instead of heating or cooling a single home, TENs connect several buildings with water-filled underground pipe networks. This allows the network to collect energy from heat-generating sources, such as data centers, factories or wastewater treatment plants, and distribute it to heat or cool other buildings on the network, such as homes and businesses. TENs make incredibly efficient use of electricity, reducing emissions today as we work toward a 100% clean electric grid, and locking in carbon-free heat for the future. With appropriate resources and the right customer mix, entire neighborhoods can be electrified, helping put New York on track for a clean heat future with zero carbon emissions.

Thermal energy networks are already being used widely in cities across Europe and Canada. Now, thanks to the passage of the 2022 Utility Thermal Energy Networks and Jobs Act, all of New York’s major utilities are developing a total of 11 new pilot projects to institute thermal energy networks, creating good, union jobs in the process. These pilots will allow our state to explore TEN technology and opportunities to decarbonize entire neighborhoods in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the state.

National Grid has proposed four of these pilot projects. One is located here in Syracuse, where the company proposes to harness wastewater heat exchange technology at the Metropolitan Syracuse Wastewater Treatment Plant near the Inner Harbor to provide heating and cooling to a variety of new residential and commercial buildings nearby. This will capture energy generated by wastewater treatment that would otherwise just be vented to the atmosphere, and allow Syracuse to build more housing without adding carbon emissions from heating and cooling. The project will provide clean, reliable and affordable heating and cooling to the area, helping the surrounding community thrive and grow.

National Grid’s second project is a partnership with the Capital District’s city of Troy, where geothermal energy will be gathered underneath Riverfront Park and delivered to residential and commercial buildings in the surrounding area. This venture will test a model where Troy owns the energy source and the company distributes it to a variety of customers.

Projects like these are only the tip of the iceberg. We are excited to use these pilot projects as an exemplification of the benefits thermal energy networks can bring. We see thermal energy networks as a future norm for how we heat and cool buildings across New York State. From there, we hope to lead the rest of the nation to a clean future utilizing TENs.

Not only do these projects help New York reach its emission reduction goals, they also provide jobs for union workers who may otherwise be displaced as we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Oil and gas workers have skills in pipe work that directly transfer to the installation and maintenance of TENs, creating a transferable green industry for these workers.

The most viable clean energy solutions are ones that utilities, consumers, environmentalists, labor and government alike can get behind. Thermal energy networks share broad support from all of these interests because they are a clear good for all. Thermal energy networks are the future. Let’s get to work, New York.


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