Empowering the next generation

Empower chief executive Ahmad bin Shafar won’t rest until every air conditioning unit is banished from the sides of buildings across the region. Conrad Egbert meets a man on a mission.

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  August 12, 2006

|~|3p13200.gif|~|“One of the biggest problems we face is convincing the owners and investors about the benefits of district cooling in the long run,” says Shafar.|~|Ahmad bin Shafar has a pet hate in life – or rather, pet hates. And he has made it his mission to destroy them.
The chief executive of government-owned Empower wants to eradicate the sight of air conditioning units hanging from the side of buildings in Dubai.

It is perhaps not a surprising wish from a man who runs one of the largest district cooling outfits in the UAE. However, his desire seems to be motivated as much by environmental benefits as commercial ones.

“Over the next ten years I don’t want to see any of these individual air conditioners poking out of the sides of buildings,” he stresses. “This is my aim, my love, my passion and my target.”

Empower, or Emirates Central Cooling Corporation, to give it its full name, is the leading district cooling company in Dubai. It was formed as a joint venture between Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) and Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone.

Shafar believes that it’s only a matter of time before district cooling becomes the norm in the UAE and the wider region, and individual air conditioning units will find their place in Emirati history books.

According to DEWA statistics, power consumption in Dubai has increased by 1600 GWh in 2004 compared to 2003 and the rising trend will continue this year.

The situation is not confined to Dubai. Regionally, the GCC’s annual average power consumption shows an increase of 9%, triple the global scale, with an estimated US $100 billion needed to meet energy needs over the next decade.

“The challenge in Dubai needs to be addressed with a comprehensive energy savings strategy targeting all levels of society,” explains Shafar.

“Empower strongly believes that the solution is two-fold – developing energy efficient products and nourishing a culture of conservation, which continues to lack the attention and urgency it deserves.”

To date, Empower has signed contracts with major commercial, leisure and residential projects, providing district cooling services for Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai Healthcare City, Business Bay and Dubai International Financial Centre. It has also signed contracts to provide services for future developments such as City of Arabia, World Trade Centre Residence, International Media Production Zone, Dubai Pearl and Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone.

Shafar says that despite the company concentrating on upcoming developments it would like to switch the ‘old town’ areas of Dubai (including Bur Dubai, Deira and Karama) to district cooling as well. “I definitely want to convert the old town to district cooling. If we work out the district cooling for the old town, with Dubai producing 4500 MW of electric power at the moment the saving or surplus can be redirected to other areas in the larger expansion of the city, which means we’re optimising the current load.”

But a major obstacle to achieving this is the current mindset of occupiers and developers, who are not yet completely sold on the idea of district cooling. Shafar says: “There are a lot of barriers. It’s not going to be a greenfield project where we just go out there and do it. Due to the congestion of the old town some areas cannot be worked upon, as we need a clear passage under the ground to install our pipes for the system. And then, some areas are simply not affordable.

“One of the biggest problems we face is convincing the owners and investors about the benefits of district cooling in the long run. If an owner already has another system in place, why would they want to invest in a new one until the life of the one they already have is nearing its end?”

From the perspective of an investor, there is still often a reluctance to sign up to what is still new and emerging technology in the region. “The biggest problem at this stage is that no one is interested until they visibly see it working – they want to see the results, which is why the initial stages are a little hard,” he says.

Despite the difficulties encountered by firms such as Empower in educating the market, the advantages of district cooling are becoming more apparent – particularly in a market of rising oil prices, where environmentally friendly technologies are increasingly moving centre stage.

One district cooling plant has a capacity of around 5,000 TR, which is enough to provide district cooling for a quarter of the buildings on Sheikh Zayed Road. The JBR project has 12 plants, with a capacity of 60,000 TR – only five of these plants would be enough to service the entire Sheikh Zayed Road.

“Previously in the UAE, when it was in its initial development stages, the window air conditioner was the only thing around. Do you know how much electricity one of these units consumes? It consumes at least 2.3 kW per tonne per hour. I wouldn’t call that energy efficient, not by a long shot.

“Then they came in with the split air conditioning unit, and then the chiller. And yes, the consumption levels were improved, but they were still not enough, and maintaining them has turned out to be a nightmare.”

Empower believes that proper research and development is important for the growth of the industry in the Gulf, and Shafar says the company tries to incorporate new concepts into its projects.

On the JBR project, it has introduced submetering, which is the first time this has been done on a project of this scale. “We all know that district cooling is efficient, but the demand could go up with customers not wanting to pay for something they haven’t used entirely, so this new submetering system will prove fair and efficient,” he says.
While the environmental case for district cooling has been well made, Shafar says the cost savings involved will be the clinching factor for many developers.

“We’ve had to study the market very closely and I don’t want to quote a figure that could be wrong, but on the whole the amount of money that the government would save could run into billions per year,” says Shafar. “Of course to convert a place to district cooling is not cheap by any standards, but in the long run you end up saving more than you can imagine and people don’t seem to understand this right now,” he adds.

Shafar is passionate about the environmental benefits of district cooling, while being realistic enough to understand that it will be its commercial benefits that will appeal to cost-conscious developers across the region.

That said, promoting the sector seems to be a matter of conscience for him: “At the end of the day, and most importantly, we all need to appreciate how far a little change in our daily habits to conserve energy can go in averting a potential energy crisis that may face future generations.

“We need to think and act collectively on the issue of energy conservation. One person may not make the difference, but collectively we can make all the difference – we owe it to ourselves, our families and to our city.”
You can’t argue with that. ||**||

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