Writer: Tim Q. M. Martina
By now, we are all aware of the apocalyptic picture exhaustingly drawn by scholars and activists; global warming, over-population, famine, mass-extinction. To put it mildly, not desirable. We can choose to work against something bad, or we can choose to work towards something good. There is a difference. Post-scarcity is a theoretical economic state in which products are produced in abundance through limited to no human labor. Goods and services are very cheaply or freely obtainable. Futurists persuasively argue, seeing that energy is the primordial commodity, solving the global energy problem unlocks the path to a post-scarcity global society. Even if practically possible, this is of course a monumental task not probably attainable in our lifetime. We can, though, do our part in the right direction and even make a profit while doing so. In Curaçao, the next step towards solving this very complex problem might just be closer than we realise: Zakitó District Cooling.
As public offices strategise investments for the local economy, sustainable development often lies in the midst of many proposals. This is also the case with the vision for the Zakitó area where the immense thermal potential of the ocean is to be used for the Seawater based District Cooling (SDC) project. Zakitó extends from the Rif/Mangrove area by Otrobanda near the old water and energy plant to Parasasa beach in Piscadera. When developed, this area instantly becomes prime real estate for spin-off ventures ranging from tourism, hospitality, agriculture, health, and export of goods and services. Leveraging proper understanding of the laws of nature, we can sustainably in current day engineer a comfortable and cost-effective way of living by building in harmony with nature.
Here in the tropics, much more than half of the electric energy is used for air conditioning. It is only logical to aspire to utilise an inexhaustible and renewable energy source. At a depth of approximately 850 meters, the ocean water on this latitude is around 5 degrees centigrade. This cold seawater is pumped ashore through an intricate pipe system and either passed through a heat exchanger, where a freshwater loop is centrally chilled for further decentralised cooling applications, or directly distributed to consumers. In the latter case, each consumer has a private energy transfer station that interfaces with a cooling system onsite. At this point in the SDC process, the slightly warmed seawater is around 10 degrees centigrade and is pumped back offshore to a depth around 100 meters. The environmental impact of the slightly warmed effluent seawater is insignificant. System designers in cooperation with marine biologists have taken into account that this nutrient-rich water needs to find its way back to the proper depth in order not to disturb the fragile equilibrium of coral and algae growth on the local reefs.
Comparatively to conventional cooling solutions, this approach to cooling increases the energy-efficiency by tenfold, thus substantially reducing total electric-energy cost, diminishing carbon footprint, and eliminating use of hazardous refrigerants. The process of seawater for cooling is already in use for decades around the world. In addition to the cooling benefits, this effluent seawater could potentially be used for activities in agriculture (vegetable greenhouses), aquaculture (seafood farming and storage), micro algae farms for the pharmaceutical industry, deep seawater desalination, and research & development in general.
Ecopower International (Curaçao), Van Oord (The Netherlands), Curaçaose Wegenbouw Maatschappij (CWM, local representative of Janssen de Jong Group, The Netherlands), Deerns (The Netherlands), Civil Engineering Caribbean (Curaçao), DEVCCO (Sweden), Makai Ocean Engineering (Hawaii, USA) and Emmitt Green (The Netherlands), form the international consortium taking on this challenge. This joint venture with their extensive global experience, at the time of publication, is almost ready to start construction as soon as financial closure is reached. The expectation for completion of the infrastructure once started is to be approximately 2 years and require a total investment of USD 45-50 million.
Although there is no rational way to conclude that this is not a sound investment, the real valorisation comes with the platform that this infrastructure creates. For the majority of local businesses, cooling represents approximately 70% of the total energy-related costs. By relieving companies from the relatively high energy tariffs, this platform can arguably facilitate a much higher capital-efficacy for the investing enterprises. This means the cost of conducting business is reduced, and the local entrepreneurs are investing in the path to resilience and sustainability instead of just paying for air conditioning. As a result, benefits are far reaching not only for the environment but also for businesses and the economy. Preliminary forecasts estimate that this initiative unlocks an economic output of 2 billion US dollars and 400 permanent jobs, a new economic pillar for the island. The Zakitó District Cooling project has the potential to provide reliable, sustainable, and cost-effective cooling but also develop a deep seawater industry which can generate export earnings as well as food security for a more self-sufficient island. Even if caring for the environment is not your initial focus, this bottom line is hard to overlook.