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Why Breaking Down Energy Silos is the Key to Decarbonization

Innovative heat pump technology and electrified thermal management systems are set to become game-changers in the way commercial buildings are managed. But to get the most out of these technologies, we have to change our mindset and break down silos around heating and cooling. 

On the face of it, we are in a Catch-22 situation. As global warming leads to a hotter world, there will be greater need for more cooling and more air conditioning than ever before. But this means more energy use, often through burning fossil fuels, which simply exacerbates climate change. Heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) can be part of the solution. The key to this is to stop seeing heating and cooling as separate entities.

The heating and cooling requirements of a building have historically existed in silos, but this is a way of thinking that needs disrupting. We have this absurd situation where on the one side we are using fossil fuels to create heat, and then on the other, we’re using electricity to reject heat from the same building. This inefficient use of energy means that in Europe, buildings are responsible for 40% of energy consumption and 36% of greenhouse gas emissions. Almost half of the energy used in buildings is on heating and cooling.

A thermal management system combines the ability to chill and heat by recovering energy that would otherwise be wasted. When powered by renewable electricity, thermal management systems can play a crucial role in decarbonizing buildings and cities, helping to remove the need for fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. This innovative and proven approach to heating and cooling has seen Trane partner with a growing number of organizations that are looking to decarbonize their operations and enhance a building’s efficiency and sustainability.

Sustainability in Action: Mater Dei Hospital

Hospitals are a classic example of where both a chilling load and a heating load overlap at the same time. At the Mater Dei Hospital in Malta, when the time came to replace the existing chillers, the hospital opted for a new thermal management system that produces both chilled and hot water at the same time, helping to meet heating, cooling and dehumidification needs across the hospital. The system has led to savings of over €1m a year on the diesel fuel needed to power a boiler, and also prevents almost 3,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year. But in addition to these savings, Ramon Tabone, senior mechanical engineer at the hospital, believes that improved air quality is another important benefit of the Trane system.

“We forget the direct impact on the health of the citizens when burning fossil fuels in densely populated city and village centers,” he says. “There is no doubt that health-related pollutants have reduced dramatically as a consequence of this project.”

Sustainability in Action: Derby College

Around 80% of the work Trane does is retrofit, and while the initial outlay may be higher than simply replacing like-for-like, once savings in fuel costs are factored in, the system is in some cases better than free. Another example is the installation of a low-carbon heating system at Derby College’s Broomfield Hall Campus, with the new highly efficient thermal system replacing fossil-fueled boilers.

According to Iain Baldwin, the college’s director of estates: “Relying on a carbon-based heating system was outdated and unacceptable in today’s society. This installation is a step in the right direction for the college and is a great example of how green, clean energy provision can be utilized on a greenfield site.”

The future is where infrastructure is no longer siloed but seen as one organism. Cities will become better inter-connected, so that everything is electric and fossil fuels become a thing of the past.

Jose La Loggia

President, Trane Commercial HVAC Europe, Middle East and Africa

Jose La Loggia

Doing the math

Using the total-efficiency ratio (TER), an industry approach championed by Trane, we have shown that the new thermal units have brought about a 400% improvement in efficiency and cut annual CO2 emissions by 160 tonnes. TER is based on the calculation that with separate heating and cooling systems, for every two units of energy that are introduced, the best outcome is four units of heating and cooling. A thermal unit boosts this to eight units for everyone that is put in.

The Derby project is part of Trane Technologies’ Gigaton Challenge, our commitment to help reduce 1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent from our customers’ footprint by 2030, a figure roughly equal to the annual emissions of Italy, France and the UK combined.

Leading by example

We are also working internally to reduce our own carbon footprint. At the end of last year, we installed an electrified thermal-management system at our manufacturing facility in Charmes, France. The new system is expected to reduce 1,800 tonnes of carbon emissions annually. Trane Technologies has committed to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across our value chain by 2050 with our emission-reduction targets validated by the Science Based Targets Initiative (SBTi).

Scottish Water Horizons

The growth of new technologies is also playing a key role in the rise of the new combined system. In 2019, a new district heating system – the first of its kind in the UK – buzzed into life in Stirling, Scotland. It uses Trane’s heat-pump technology to extract heat from sewage and wastewater. The technology has the potential to save over 380 tonnes of carbon a year, says Donald MacBrayne, business development manager for Scottish Water Horizons.

The network, which is operated by Stirling Council, supports a number of key public buildings, including a leisure center and a high school. The project has been so successful that the council is now looking to expand the network and connect more customers to low-carbon heat. Four similar projects have since been launched in Scotland, and there has also been interest from across Europe.

A new mindset

Innovation is part of the solution, but we need to change the traditional way of thinking that says heating and cooling are separate things. By creating better connections between the grid and the entities that use electricity, from cooling systems to transportation, and with the increasing efficiency of battery storage, the amount of energy that needs to be generated in the future may be far less than is needed to power today’s less-efficient systems. The future is where infrastructure is no longer siloed but seen as one organism. Cities will become better inter-connected, so that everything is electric and fossil fuels become a thing of the past.

This article first appeared in a special “Future of Energy” section of The Times (UK) in June 2023. 

Thought Leaders

Dave Regnery

Chair and CEO, Trane Technologies

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Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, Trane Technologies

Donny Simmons

Group President, Americas, Trane Technologies

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Jose La Loggia

Jose La Loggia, Group President, EMEA

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Paul Camuti

Executive Vice President and Chief Technology and Sustainability Officer, Trane Technologies

Steve Hagood

Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Trane Technologies

Chris Kuehn

Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Trane Technologies

Keith Sultana

Senior Vice President, Global Integrated Supply Chain, Trane Technologies