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I arrived in Chicago on Nov. 17, 2021, to take part in a three-day “train the trainer” course at UA Local 130. I had no idea what to expect, except that Egg Geo was asked to prepare a two-hour session on thermal energy networks (TENs). The first thing I noticed when my wife, Kristy, dropped me off in front of the building was the electronic reader board with the classic pipe wrench and the slogan, “Plumbers Protect the Nation's Health.”
The full name of the UA is the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada, but most call it the UA. The first truly successful national plumbers’ union body, the UA was officially founded Oct. 11, 1889. With many iterations over the past 130-plus years, the UA currently represents more than 365,000 plumbers, pipefitters, sprinkler fitters, service technicians and welders in local unions across North America.
With the current U.S. administration’s infrastructure plans and the inclusion of thermal energy networks within our communities throughout the United States and Canada, union numbers are expected to swell considerably.
When the information is coupled with the knowledge that TENs (which represent 40 percent of the energy consumption in U.S. buildings) will be installed beneath the streets in our communities and cities throughout the nation, the growth of pipefitter trades is and will continue to be unprecedented.
Among the esteemed guests at the UA presentation on TENs was Colo. Sen. Chris Hansen. He sent me a quote to share:
“Thermal energy networks, or district heating and cooling networks, are important advances in our built environment that provide reliable heating and cooling while eliminating emissions from traditional technologies. TENs are integral to the clean energy future, using waste heat sources and renewable energy during peak production times to provide economically efficient heating and cooling. I am excited about UA’s efforts toward this sustainable infrastructure, and I plan to introduce legislation in Colorado this upcoming session that provides ground-source and air-source heat pump incentives to speed the adoption of this technology.”
It’s clear the government and authorities having jurisdiction in the United States understand that 40 percent of the energy used in buildings is for heating, hot water and cooling (https://bit.ly/PlumbersCleanHeating). An extraordinary amount of heat is exhausted from buildings through cooling towers and other rooftop equipment.
The path forward is obvious. TENs enable us to pipe that heat to other buildings and apartments needing it, under city streets and parking lots requiring de-icing, and to manufacturing processes that need clean energy.
The UA is intimately involved in the development of building codes, and my first involvement with leadership there came from my time serving with the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO) on the Uniform Mechanical Codecommittee. Rich Benkowski of UA’s department of education and training and James Pavesic, UA’s director of education and training, are two of the individuals with which Egg Geo has worked over the last half dozen years at IAPMO.
About a year ago, the UA asked Egg Geo to begin the process of creating a formal training program to educate the UA members on TENs infrastructure (http://bit.ly/2nhBfBx).
The infrastructure in New York City is a great learning laboratory for these efforts. UA Local 1 is in New York City and has been key to these educational efforts. It’s ironic to be asked if the installation of TENs is possible with the tangled mess of massive infrastructure underneath NYC streets.
Before trying to answer that question for anyone, it seems appropriate to note that more than 2 million miles of natural gas pipelines were installed under U.S. city streets over the last 100 years, not to mention massive aqueducts, subway systems and new fiber-optic networks. Infrastructure will always find a way.
Like Egg Geo, many mechanical/electrical/plumbing firms are working toward solutions such as the thermal energy network designed for the 15 Penn South 22-story apartment buildings. Penn South, also known as Mutual Redevelopment Houses, is an affordable housing cooperative located in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The complex has a co-generation plant that uses waste heat from its generators to provide residents heat, hot water and air cooling.
The UA offers a military transition program that is 100 percent self-funded by the union called the United Association Veterans in Piping Program, or UA VIP (www.uavip.org). This program is for military members transitioning out to the civilian world. During the transition period, members of the U.S. military can take part in an 18-week, 720-hour hands-on technical training program for one of three areas: welding, HVAC or sprinkler fitting.
Attendees to this program are guaranteed a five-year paid apprenticeship in their chosen field. They apply for three locations and usually get their first choice in one of the 243 union locals across the country.
During my phone interview with program manager Mike Hazard, he said our military personnel deserve to live with dignity in high-paying jobs that can sustain a family. I would have taken advantage of this program if it were available in the late 1980s when I got out of the military and started my HVAC career.
Pipefitting for thermal energy networks might be the most important infrastructure job in the world right now. They are second only to the maintenance of clean and healthy drinking water, and safe wastewater handling and treatment. We are all aware of what happens when electrical infrastructure is tapped beyond its capability. We saw that last winter in Texas when the grid nearly collapsed under the stress of the heating load from one singular cold snap.
The UA’s VIP and programs like it can help shore up our industry’s skilled labor problem by recruiting former military personnel to help fill the gaps at the engineering and contractor levels.
By the way, drinking water and wastewater infrastructure components have a tremendous amount of energy transfer capabilities for our nation’s TENs (https://bit.ly/PHCP-DrinkingWaterEnergy).
Decarbonization programs require the full beneficial electrification of buildings. Wintertime electrical grid spikes will cripple our country unless TENs are installed to transfer heat energy from our cooling-dominant office buildings and factories to the light commercial and residential buildings that most need heat in the winter. TENs allow load diversification and effectively pipe about 40 percent of our energy to where it’s needed most.
UA’s Benkowski told attendees in Chicago’s training session that the big data companies (data centers) have asked the UA to prepare for unprecedented growth.
With the remarkable increase of data center construction, hyperscale data centers are rejecting incomprehensible volumes of energy, which could be effectively piped (hydronically) to areas needing that heat energy for manufacturing, heating, greenhouses or even absorption chiller energy facilities that recycle the heat into much-needed air-conditioning capacity (https://bit.ly/GeoDataCentersSaveEnergyWater).
Imagine that; when we are faced with peak cooling capacity needs in the middle of the summer, we can harness the waste heat energy from cooling our commercial buildings and residential customers. It is recycled as heat energy that drives absorption chillers. You can see an example in Figure 5.
Properly implemented, these thermal energy networks will fill our city centers with sustainable energy solutions that will reduce peak electrical consumption dramatically in the summertime and eliminate electrical spikes in the wintertime.
Existing electrical infrastructure can be stabilized throughout the year, CO2 emissions will be dramatically reduced, energy costs will stabilize, and we will be prepared to see our nation’s plumbers truly take their place as stewards of the nation’s thermal energy networks.