Source: Districlima, 2016

District cooling

District cooling is a system in which chilled water is distributed in pipes from a central cooling plant to several buildings for space cooling and process cooling. By replacing individual cooling systems in each building, the district cooling system can deliver economies of scale in terms of capital, energy and maintenance costs. 

District cooling systems are based on well-proven technologies. Simultaneously it offers an opportunity for a ground-breaking integrated systems-approach which contributes to reliability of cooling and optimizes energy efficiency and the use of local energy resources. The development of energy-efficient district energy systems in cities can be one of the least-cost and most- effective solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and primary energy demand.

Local governments are uniquely positioned to advance district energy systems in their various capacities: as planners and regulators, as facilitators of finance, as role models and advocates, and as large consumers of energy and providers of infrastructure and services.

Although the cooling demand profile is very site specific, there are certain building types that require cooling year-round across different climatic zones such as: data centers, shopping malls, markets, office buildings, hospitals, among others. The use of centralized systems and particularly of district cooling can offer very significant efficiency gains and alleviate the peak electricity consumption and stress to the power grid. 

The current Solutions Package aims to support local governments in taking an integrated systems-approach to ensure reliability and affordability of district cooling, exploring the different roles which local governments can take to support modern district cooling.

 Video: District Energy, key to achieving low-carbon communities, developed by IDEA in partnership with UN Environment and ICLEI

Motivation / Relevance

Currently, space heating and cooling as well as hot water are estimated to account for roughly half of global energy consumption in buildings (IEA, 2011a) [1].

The energy requirement for air conditioning is expected to grow at an average of 7% annually until the year 2050 in developing countries [2].

In Dubai for example, cooling represents 70% of electricity consumption. The use of centralized systems, and in particular district cooling enables both for a smoother demand profile and for the tapping into energy sources which might not be viable at the scale of a single building [1].


Figure 1 – District cooling network simplified diagram

Source: ICLEI and UN Environment in [16]



Figure 2 – Energy transfer station: interface between building energy system and the district cooling network - simplified diagram. Source: ICLEI and UN Environment in [16]



Figure 3 – Modern district energy systems

Source: UNEP, 2015 [1]




Main impacts

  • Air quality improvement and associated public health impacts
  • More reliable energy supply
  • Energy security / Reduced dependence on energy imports
  • Reduced socio-economic impacts of fossil fuels’ price volatility
  • Reduced fuel poverty
  • Local wealth retention and economic development
  • ”Future-proofed” network (allows easy adoption of renewable energy and new technologies without the need to install equipment in each building)
  • Green local economy
  • Resilience to natural and technological disasters and catastrophes
  • Climate change mitigation   

Benefits and Co-Benefits

  • Lower strain on the power grid and reduce black-outs
  • Reduce electricity peak demand
  • Postponing of the need to investment in additional capacity of the power grid to satisfy peak demand and reducing energy generation operational costs
  • Decreased heat loss into the atmosphere, minimizing the urban heat-island effect
  • Contribution to meeting GHG reduction targets, by reducing direct and indirect emissions


Low hanging fruit
  • Starting district cooling in existing cities and developments

    This Solution describes the process of identifying and supporting a district cooling demonstration project. It supports local governments in planning for and implementing district cooling networks in existing developments where circumstances such as high heat demand, mixed land use and existence of buildings with central water-based cooling systems that are reaching the end of their useful life may render it viable. This Solution is most relevant for cities without district cooling or with very low shares of district cooling, however its recommendations are still relevant for cities with higher shares. Learn More...

  • Integrating district energy into energy and urban planning

    This Solution supports local governments in enhancing district energy systems feasibility and implementation in new urban development / redevelopment through integrated energy, land-use and infrastructure planning, land-use and urban planning policies, regulations and administrative licensing procedures. This Solution also supports the definition of a long-term energy strategy for the city as a whole that maximizes the use of local energy resources and improves systems coherence, energy efficiency, reliability and affordability of heat and/or cooling through the inclusion of district energy. This Solution is particularly relevant for cities that are developing new areas or redeveloping / densifying nodes in the city. Learn More...

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  • Efficient Energy Production through Cogeneration and Trigeneration

    Combined Heat and Power (CHP) generation is much more efficient than separate power and heat generation. Combining cogeneration with chillers in the same process to form trigeneration systems. This Solution looks at the framework conditions and determinants that are relevant for / trigeneration cogeneration project viability and implementation. It also looks at the relevance of district cooling in complementing and strengthening the business model for district heating. Learn More...

  • Interconnected systems towards 100% renewable district heating & cooling

    This Solution provides guidance on the integration of renewable energy sources in district energy production, both in new systems and in already existing ones, and can be of interest to both established and growing cities. It also zooms in on technical aspects such as specificities of different renewable energy sources (e.g.: biomass, solar thermal energy, waste heat from waste water, biogas or geothermal energy), thermal storage, lower operating temperatures, complementing district heating and cooling, and integration with the electricity grid. Learn More...

  • District energy supply with surplus or waste heat

    This Solution supports local governments in encouraging and enhancing use of surplus or waste heat as energy source for the district heating and/or cooling networks in their jurisdiction.. (Forthcoming)


Additional Information




This Solution was jointly developed and peer-reviewed by ICLEI and the Global District Energy in Cities Initiative (DES Initiative) , which is coordinated by the United Nations Environment.

ICLEI acknowledges and recognizes all individual organizations and experts that kindly contributed their time and expertise to this Solution - for details please see the "Developer" section above and the "Supporters" webpage.

This Solution draws significantly upon the UN Environment publication: District Energy in Cities. For more information on the Global District Energy in Cities Initiative (DES Initiative) and to become a partner or learning city, please visit:

This initiative is the implementing mechanism for the SEforALL District Energy Accelerator.