The development of district cooling in China

Like the huge project under construction in Shenzhen, district cooling in China has a great potential for development, given the energy benefits it offers and the strong growth in commercial buildings. 

One of the world’s largest district cooling networks is currently under construction in Shenzhen, in southeast China. 


With a total refrigerating capacity of 1.400 MW and a 90 km network of pipes supplied by 10 cooling stations, it will be able to cool the entire Qianhai economic zone made up of shopping centres, offices, subways or data centres, covering 27 million m2 (1) (2). Three of the 10 cooling stations planned have been completed, and seven more will be built over the next few years. The total cost of this project is estimated at about 4 billion yuan (USD 620 million) (1).  


Qianhai’s district cooling system uses electric chillers combined with ice storage technology. 


According to Shenzhen Qianhai Energy Technology Development Company, in charge of the project, the system, once completed, is expected to save 130 million kWh of electricity every year in comparison with individual air conditioning systems. These electricity savings make it possible to avoid the combustion of 16,000 tonnes of coal and reduce CO2 emissions by 130,000 tonnes. 


According to a report by the Asian Development Bank (2), district cooling represents a huge potential market in China. While district heating started in the mid-20th century, district cooling in China is a relatively new technology that was developed in the early 21st century and gradually gained popularity after the launch of the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010) for National Economic and Social Development, which pushed for conserving energy and reducing emissions. 


While residential buildings cannot currently be considered as a target market for district cooling development due to the low price of household electricity in China, commercial buildings with a relatively stable cooling load and a predictable demand profile could be a priority building category for such development. Furthermore, floor area of commercial buildings in China tripled in 2001-2011 and is expected to double in 2011-2030 to reach 14 billion m2 by the end of the period.  


The current installed capacity of district cooling, estimated in the report at over 4.2 GW, corresponds to an annual demand of 5.9 TWh. If only 0.01% of all commercial buildings were connected to a district cooling system, this would result in a cooling load of 3850 MW, corresponding to an additional annual demand of 5.39 TWh. This is a conservative hypothesis, since district cooling of airports, data centers, hospitals, industries, and other buildings with high-density cooling demand would also be feasible. 


This study shows that China’s current district cooling market of over 5.9 TWh is larger than both the Japanese (3.5 TWh) and European (3 TWh) markets and could reach the level of North America (25 TWh) within 5 years if it grows by up to 5.39 TWh yearly as projected. 


While emphasising that the main drawback of district cooling systems is their high initial cost, the study also highlights among the benefits a reduction in energy consumption of 25 to 30%, a long lifespan of up to 50 years and financial competitiveness provided certain conditions are met, such as the need for high density cooling demand areas.