Special report: Pushing the boundaries

The Middle East district cooling industry is expanding rapidly but challenges still remain

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From left: DC PRO Engineering’s Hessam Seifi, Fadi Hacham, Karen Saliba, and Tony Mina.
From left: DC PRO Engineering’s Hessam Seifi, Fadi Hacham, Karen Saliba, and Tony Mina.

District Cooling has been a mainstay in the Middle East for the best part of 15 years now. In that time more than five million refrigeration tonnes of district cooling plants have been installed in the GCC alone. UAE-based DC Pro Engineering has undoubtedly been one of the pioneers in the rapid growth of district cooling services throughout the Middle East. Led by CEO George Berbari and backed up by a workforce of around 70 qualified engineers, the company has captured a 30-40% share of the ever-expanding Middle East market.

“With our innovative design techniques, we save 70% of your fresh air energy, 30% of your air side fan energy, 50% of your lighting energy, 90% of your hot water energy, 30% of your water usage and more, and we do all that while reducing your construction cost,” says Berbari.

However being a market leader in district energy means that DC Pro Engineering is always striving to push the boundaries of what can be achieved by testing out new ideas and theories.

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Design director Fadi Hachem believes that district cooling development, however, has stagnated over the past 15 years; a situation that is at odds with the forward-thinking ethos of DC Pro Engineering.

“We haven’t seen any real development in the technology in the past 15 years other than the development of compressors and chillers’ efficiency,” he says. “At the same time, other technologies were developing faster than district cooling, like VRF systems and magnetic bearing centrifugal chillers.”

However, with the region as a whole looking to cut its energy consumption (Dubai Supreme Council for Energy, for example, is looking to cut energy consumption by 20% in 2020 and 30% in 2030), there is an urgent need for district cooling providers to come up with more energy-efficient, cost-effective solutions to match these ambitions.

“The industry needs to align itself with the movement in the GCC,” says mechanical design manager Hessam Seifi. “We have to come up with new ideas and new solutions in district cooling which is what DC Pro Engineering is trying to promote.”

One of the major reasons DC Pro Engineering is well respected in the market is down to the high calibre of its workforce. As electrical design manager Tony Mina points out, all of the staff come from an operational background.

This fact is clearly important to the company.

“We are not like other typical consultants that just design based on software numbers. We have good people that have got years of hands on experience in district cooling,” he says. “They have been to sites, they have seen the plants, they’ve seen the operational data of those plants – so they have gained a high level of confidence that most other consultants don’t have.

“We always see what the client wants but we don’t just stop there. We try to introduce innovative ideas. Perhaps it comes at a cost to us but I think in the end it helps the industry altogether.

“To push things forward you need consultants who are innovative and really fighting for change.”

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Mechanical engineer Karen Saliba, who is a relative newcomer to the company, says that employees are given the freedom to come up with new ideas when working on assignments.

“If you have an idea for a particular problem, it’s about going out and researching it and seeing whether it is feasible or not,” she says. “We have an open culture for creativity and innovation”.

“To be honest, working in the Middle East right now feels like a big privilege. Everything I have learned in college I’m now sitting with engineers discussing how we can save energy, help clients, help society. This is what every engineer dreams about doing.”

“Newcomers like Karen have a totally different view on subjects” adds Seifi. “It’s good to have that young fresh talent coming into the company to complement the core of experience and data we already have.”

The company designs all of its projects using building information modelling (BIM) whether or not it is asked for by the client.

“We even prepare shop drawings,” says Mina. “We model services within shop drawings to a level that I don’t think other consultants have yet reached. We avoid oversizing which is a killer in district cooling. We have saved more than 50% of cooling loads that were meant to be designed.”

However, there is a premimum to be paid for requisitioning the services of a leading district cooling engineering company. Hachem admits that price is an issue with some potential clients, however he explains that engineering is only around 2% of the overall project cost-cycle, and the return on investment far outweighs the upfront cost.

“People think they are being smart because they want to save 10-20% of the engineering cost and then they end up paying millions of dollars in additional construction costs.

“We have real proven cases where we have saved clients more than 50% of project costs. Worst case scenario we save 10-20% construction cost as a minimum.”

Seifi says that for district cooling to be even more widely adopted in the region (the UAE alone has an 11% penetration rate. The remaining GCC countries around 3-5%), the market needs a robust regulatory framework that protects both the district cooling providers and customers.

“The encouraging thing is that we are starting to see governments working on proper regulations,” he says. “If this happens then district cooling will really shine.”

 

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