I Am District Energy

Welcome to “I AM District Energy,” our latest initiative designed to introduce you to the people behind the systems and the impact they have on our industry and our planet.  

And we want to hear from you too! Share this blog on social media and tell us your story and of your experience working in district energy, with the hashtag #IAMDistrictEnergy. 

Latest Posts

Bridging the Green Skills Gap

An IDEA Discussion with District Energy Executive Juan Ontiveros


IDEA CampusEnergy2024, held in San Francisco this past February, shed light on the innovative solutions being paired with district energy to advance decarbonization efforts. These solutions also often integrate renewable energy technologies both on college and university campuses and in commercial settings. However, the need for workforce development and growth of the labor force in the energy industry may be one of the biggest obstacles to the continued growth and expansion of these solutions.  
Between 2022 and 2023, the workforce only showed a 12.3% increase in green talent, while there was a 22.4% increase in jobs requiring green skills. A clear shortfall.  Additionally, with campuses and industry adopting lower carbon technologies, the complexity of energy systems is intensifying, which also requires specialized knowledge and skills. This may result in increased difficulties for new employees as well as those who are farther along in their careers, as workers must quickly adapt to the evolving demands of the job. 
The data above reinforces what many in the industry are seeing first-hand. The global workforce lacks the sustainability professionals and clean tech experts required to meet the surging demand for decarbonization amid the climate transition. However, addressing this skills and talent gap can be accomplished with the right strategies in place. For insight on how campuses are addressing the workforce challenge, we spoke with Juan Ontiveros, a former Associate Vice President for Utilities, Energy and Facilities Management at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and IDEA Board Member Emeritus, about the approach and practices he developed during his career to hire and train new district energy professionals. 
UT Austin’s District Energy Systems
With more than 50,000 students enrolled, UT Austin serves a student body the size of a small city. It meets the energy needs for those students by producing 100% of its electric power and thermal energy by itself since 1929. All 200 buildings on campus (17 million square feet) are connected through a combined heat and power (CHP) district energy system located centrally on campus. 
UT Austin’s Training Program
To proactively address green workforce issues the University has invested more than half a million dollars in its training program over the past decade. Recognizing the need to invest in people alongside equipment, UT Austin has developed its own certified and test-based training program to ensure that new hires understand the nuances of their specific systems and operations. 
“One of the challenges campuses face is to find the people with the right talents to meet carbon-neutral goals. Every energy system is unique and takes specialized electricians, plumbers, technicians, operators and other experts to keep them efficiently running. The training program helps bridge the talent gap and also support their growth,” said Ontiveros. The program is a success, as it has been attracting and retaining individuals like Ryan Thompson, Director of Utilities - Operations, Utilities and Energy Management at the UC Austin, and Rossen Tzartzev, Associate Director of Electrical Distribution and Elevator Services for UT Austin, who both started in the training program and now hold significant leadership positions at the university’s utility system. 
To meet various needs and bring new talent into the industry, UT Austin also works closely with community colleges and supports individuals who have been laid off or are looking to make a career change.  Training programs are critical in addressing workforce development issues. It’s a fact that’s now being recognized at the federal level as well. In February 2024, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a new $24 million funding opportunity for workforce training programs with a focus on training in clean energy jobs that do not require a four-degree.
Collaborating with Students
In addition to the training program, UT Austin also constantly collaborates with engineering students from the University’s electrical and mechanical engineering departments. These partnerships often involve the students undertaking projects such as analyzing the potential benefits of adding major equipment to the system. The students' fresh perspectives often help lead to the implementation of innovative solutions, providing UT Austin with valuable insight and giving the students valuable real-world experience. 
“Our job is to inspire students and spur new ideas to solve challenging problems like climate change,” said Ontiveros. “Through this collaboration, students gain hands-on experience, provide new perspectives and deepen their understanding of the energy industry, which will increase universities’ chances to bring in new talent.”
Useful Training Sources 
If you're a student or recently joined the district energy industry, check out IDEA’s Young Professionals Group. This group provides networking opportunities for the younger generation of district energy professionals with less than 5 years of experience to share knowledge, get involved, and build connections, and this group will be meeting again at IDEA2024 in June. In the near future, IDEA will unveil a new online learning platform with a wealth of educational content - stay connected for updates.  
Juan Ontiveros is now leading the Ontiveros Energy Consulting firm and helps companies build high performing teams in utility maintenance and operation, instrumentation, networking, controls and optimization that excel in the combined heat and power as well as the district energy environment. You can reach Juan Ontiveros at ontiverosenergy@gmail.com

District Energy: Policies & Regulations to Watch

In 2022 and 2023, the conversation in the energy industry was dominated by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its impact. The landmark law committed more than $400 billion to clean energy solutions and spurred private investment and activity across the sector. 2024 is already shaping up to be another busy year in the energy sector, and what follows are the policies that IDEA’s Legislative Director and Principal at FVB Energy, Mark Spurr, says district energy professionals need to watch throughout 2024.

Geo-exchange and thermal energy storage tax credits
Because of its massive size, the IRA is taking an extended amount of time to implement, and details of some of the programs associated with the law are still being announced. Recently published proposed implementation rules on investment tax credits (ITCs) addressed treatment of two technologies of great relevance to the district energy industry – geothermal heat pumps (GHP) and thermal energy storage (TES).

The proposed regulations made clear what IDEA had urged -- that the credit for GHP may include a portion of the costs for district energy thermal distribution systems and building systems connected to GHP systems. The amount of credit for pipes and building systems depends on the percentage of thermal energy being produced through GHP.

Although the wording of the IRA and the proposed regulations appear to also include a portion of the costs of thermal distribution systems and building systems connected to TES, this was not made explicit. IDEA will be pressing for specific recognition of these costs.

The proposed regulations did explicitly state that TES costs include systems to produce energy to charge TES. IDEA is seeking to make explicit that such costs include, for example, electric chillers or boilers that produce chilled water or hot water for storage.

For more information regarding the recently published proposed regulations, see our recent blog post on IRA Guidance.

Through the rest of this year, we can expect to see several announcements from the federal governments on tax credits associated with the IRA, including on credits for clean electricity, nuclear power and carbon sequestration.

Energy policies at the local level
It’s also shaping up to be an active year - not just at the federal level, but at the local level as well. The two cities to watch in terms of decarbonization laws in 2024 and beyond are New York City and Boston.

Local Law 97
In New York, all eyes have been on Local Law 97 since it took effect on January 1st, 2024. The law establishes carbon emission limits for the city’s largest buildings. It mandates that any building over 25,000 square feet will have to meet certain energy efficiency requirements and greenhouse gas limits and will face an annual financial penalty of $268 per ton of CO2 equivalent over the limit. The limits get stricter in 2030.

According to an analysis the city conducted in 2022, 11% of buildings required to comply with the law exceeded emissions limits for the 2024-2029 compliance period, and 63% exceeded limits for the 2030-2034 period.

For our industry, Con Edison is the company most affected by Local Law 97, and for more on the strategies the company’s steam system has identified to help it, and its customers, decarbonize, check out our previous blog on this topic.

MA Stretch Code and Boston’s Building Emissions Reduction & Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO)
Now to Boston, where city leaders are also actively implementing a range of compliance and reporting measures aimed at improving building energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions.

At a fundamental level, the Specialized Stretch Energy Code (Stretch Code) and the Building Emissions Reduction & Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO) are similar to Local Law 97, using a carrot and stick approach to encourage electrification and incent efficiency improvements along with carbon emission reductions.  These policies have annual reporting requirements, penalties for non-compliance and declining targets over time.  

While neither Local Law 97 nor the Stretch Code are perfect, they are steps in the right direction, with an overall goal of decarbonization. However, there are important aspects to the laws that still need refinement.

These policies neglect to recognize that district energy systems can provide a similar decarbonization benefit, even though it is delivered in the form of steam, hot water or chilled water, rather than electricity.  Additionally, instead of installing new equipment inside a building, district energy systems allow clean thermal energy produced outside the building to be delivered in useful form via a thermal distribution network for use inside the building.  This also reduces disruption and risk for building owners and helps them avoid exposure to retail electricity pricing during peak demand periods. 

In aggregating the heating and cooling needs of dozens or even hundreds of connected buildings, district energy systems achieve economies of scale to enable low-carbon technologies like industrial heat pumps, sewer heat recovery, energy sharing, geo-exchange and even electrification of heating.  By mandating that buildings invest in electrical wiring, these codes may unintentionally discourage optimization of readily available lower carbon solutions.

A groundswell of support for the decarbonization solution beneath our feet
Because many parts of district energy systems are underground and often go unrecognized, it really is the decarbonization solution beneath our feet. However, there is growing realization and recognition that district energy can open up a myriad of decarbonization strategies, in ways that are far more cost-effective and efficient than converting buildings individually to renewable sources. 

District energy is only getting more flexible and more utilized as the energy transition moves forward, as evidenced by its prominent position in the Global Cooling Pledge at COP28. District energy is sometimes referred to as community energy, and that sense of community is key, as we all work together and employ a variety of solutions to reach a common goal of providing reliable, resilient energy while also reducing carbon emissions.

Previous Posts

  • Energy is the lifeblood that powers our societies and propels us forward. To ensure sustainable growth, we must recognize innovative solutions that not only drive economic progress but also prioritize minimal environmental impact. Year in and year out, IDEA members lead the way in technology, engineering and operational innovation. These innovations leverage the advantages of district energy to maximize energy efficiency, reduce energy and water consumption and enhance resilience. To recognize read more

  • Blog Entry

    Join more than 1,000 district energy colleagues in San Francisco from February 20 th -23 rd for this year’s Campus Energy conference Colleges and universities have long been engines of innovation, scientific breakthroughs, and thought-provoking research. However, those innovations are not just being created in the classrooms and laboratories, they are also happening behind the scenes – in the energy systems powering, heating and cooling the buildings on those campuses. The people behind read more

  • As the world continues to warm, sustainable cooling is one of the world’s top energy concerns, and a central theme of the COP28 meeting in Dubai. The COP28 Presidency is spearheading the Global Cooling Pledge at the annual international climate event. The pledge is voluntary, and its aim is to “raise ambition and international cooperation through collective targets on improving efficiency and climate friendly approaches, while increasing access to sustainable cooling for the most vulnerable.” read more

  • If you’ve ever watched an old movie set in New York City and seen steam rising from the street at night or out of the subway system while a private detective slinks through the streets trying to solve the crime, or you’ve been a tourist in the city that never sleeps and walked by one of those orange and white tubes with steam billowing out the top, then you are familiar with New York’s iconic district steam system, even if you may not have realized it. The district energy system in New York read more

  • Nowhere has the heat felt more immediate than in cities, creating an urgent need for sustainable cooling solutions. In Colombia, 75% of the country’s population lives in urban centers, and more than 70% of those cities are situated in warm climates where there is also a high demand for air conditioning. In Colombia, Cartagena is leading the way in developing cooling districts, with facilities in operation that serve the health care, commercial and residential sectors. But, as the planet read more