By Gerhard Hope
DC Pro Engineering has completed 1.4 million TR of district cooling design in the GCC to date. The total installed capacity in the region is 3.3 million TR at the moment, with a further 2 million TR on the cards. We speak to the district cooling leader about the current state of the market, and the consultancy’s move into green building (it has done 3 million square metres of green building design to date).
George Berbari, CEO of DC Pro Engineering, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon in 1985, and was the recipient of its distinguished alumni award for mechanical engineering for 2007/08. An affiliate member of ASHRAE, he has had various papers published by the association. These include ‘Fresh Air Treatment in Hot & Humid Climates’ in 1998 and ‘Fresh Air Handling Units Comparison & Design Guide’ in 2007.
Berbari is also a member of the NFPA, ASPE and the UAE Society of Engineers. He has over 20 years’ experience in the Middle East HVAC sector, ranging from operational management in the Tecmo Industries Group and sales management at UTS Carrier. He was also divisional manager at the Ian Banham Energy Division.
A pioneer in the region’s district cooling sector, Berbari was the engineering manager and co-founder of district cooling utility Tabreed. He founded DC Pro Engineering (an acronym for District Cooling Professional Engineering) in 2007.
Evidence of the consultancy’s continued role in technological development and innovation in the region was the establishment of a green building division in 2008. This division focuses on reducing energy consumption and increasing efficiency through electro-mechanical design, a key focus of the latest trend of integrated design.
An outspoken champion of energy efficiency and a strong supporter of thermal storage, Berbari has since “written the regulation for DEWA to enforce the usage of thermal storage as well as non-desalinated water for all new district cooling schemes in Dubai in compliance with executive order #27. This is probably in the final stages of being published.” Such a wide scope falls easily under the consultancy’s rubric of “covering the A-Z of district energy.” This runs the gamut “from feasibility to service and concession agreements, to financial modelling and even negotiation, to concept and detailed design; we are also the only consultancy covering operational and maintenance aspects as well,” says Berbari. “We are probably one of very few consultancies that has compiled government regulations in terms of green building and district cooling for Ras Al Khaimah,district cooling regulation for Dubailand, and of course the latest regulations for DEWA, which also include the use of treated sewage effluent (TSE) in cooling tower make-up water.”
Berbari comments that the current trend for solar thermal cooling is not viable unless applied on a large scale and receives either direct government subsidies or incentives, or current electricity subsidies are removed.
“Unless you apply it on a big scale, you cannot integrate renewable energy effectively with cooling. With 30 to 60 TR systems you are not really approaching steam generation, and limit yourself to hot water and single-effect absorption, whereas on a larger scale you achieve a double effect, with a COP that is almost 70% higher,” argues Berbari.
“It becomes very expensive, both as capital investment and to operate as well. We do see a movement towards cogeneration and even trigeneration, but these are dependent on district cooling and heating, so centralisation remains critical.
“Renewable energies such as solar air-conditioning and geothermal are not feasible at the small scale; instead they will be much more feasible at the bigger, central plant level,” says Berbari.
DC Pro Engineering has emerged from the downturn in the construction industry due to the global financial crisis relatively unscathed, continuing its pioneering work as with a proposed district cooling solution for the flagship Masdar City project in Abu Dhabi.
This has since been scaled back due to the prevailing economic climate and reduced appetite for risk. Berbari says the consultancy’s reputation as a technological pioneer has been the result of hard work (and often dogged determination).
“It took a while before we became acknowledged as a market leader. There is a saying that pioneers are often eaten by the tigers. If it works, nobody says thank you. Nevertheless, we have been blessed with the vision to always see a little bit ahead.” Berbari says his pioneering role began with his work at UTS Carrier, where he investigated the use of natural gas in chillers for the Abu Dhabi Planning Council. Berbari notes that Sharjah, for example, has spent AED500 million on a natural gas distribution network for cooking purposes – “but cooking only consumes 2% of a building’s total energy use, as opposed to 60% for air-con, for example.”
This summer again Sharjah suffered prolonged electricity blackouts due to increased air-con demand overloading supply. Thus Berbari initiated research into gas engine driven centrifugal chillers (which had a COP of 1.8, as well as consuming less water).
A problem he had to grapple with at that early stage was the high sulphur content of the natural gas available in the UAE, which quickly corroded essential equipment.
Other notable achievements to date include the first low-density district cooling application in the world, full integration of district cooling plant with PLC and SCADA control, the first ‘smart’ panels, and the region’s first runaround coil in 1993. “Humidity was a major issue in terms of mildew, fungus and condensation,” says Berbari.
The company’s initial focus on district cooling was apposite, “due to the needs of the market at the time. We gained the respect of the market, and it responded in return. I was gratified that a lot of colleagues gave us business, and today DC Pro Engineering has completed more district cooling designs than any other consultancy in the world.”
However, he acknowledges that market conditions in district cooling have changed post-downturn due to an over-supply in the market and subsequently over-designed systems. “You do not need a single building for district cooling; you need a large city. Also, district cooling as a utility requires you to finance 70% of the total cost.
“Thus it is capital-intensive. The banks have lost their appetite to finance district cooling, unless there is a very strong stakeholder with ironclad guarantees.”
Berbari says market dynamics have shifted from the private sector to the government. “Utilities like Tabreed are more and more inclined to the operational rather than the investment side. We have seen maybe two or three district cooling companies that have shut down in the interim.
“Thus while district cooling as a utility business is in trouble, as a sector of the construction industry it is still going strong.”
Berbari notes that the size of projects has reduced due to the downturn and lower demand, “even at the government scale. We now see that the public sector is filling the gap with the projects that is keeping the district cooling sector going.
“We have noticed that after Dubai has made its mark on the region and the world in terms of tourism, it is fast becoming a hub in terms of people seeking engineering support.” This ties in with the consultancy branching out into green building, and looking elsewhere for growth opportunities.
“You have to pursue opportunities elsewhere, which is a necessity for companies to survive today, and you have to diversify as well – we are now trying to focus on oil and gas as well.
“Energy-efficiency retrofits of supermarkets is also a potential niche, as with our work for the Ajman Co-Operative.
“We see strong movement in this sector, with growth potential as far afield as Southern Russia,” says Berbari. “We are also the first firm to tackle refrigeration as well.”