Downtown Energy District under the microscope

Westminster Council to vote to investigate heating and cooling system for Downtown Westminster

Scott Taylor
staylor@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/18/20

Westminster officials paid special attention back in 2017 when Amazon began looking for a site for a second headquarters. “In their RFP, they specifically asked for sites that had ‘District …

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Downtown Energy District under the microscope

Westminster Council to vote to investigate heating and cooling system for Downtown Westminster

Posted

Westminster officials paid special attention back in 2017 when Amazon began looking for a site for a second headquarters.

“In their RFP, they specifically asked for sites that had ‘District Energy’ or were district energy ready,” said Tom Ochtera, Westminster’s Energy and Facilities coordinator.

District energy is a system of hot and cold underground pipes connected to the buildings in an area — ranging from hotels and restaurants to manufacturing facilities and offices. Rather than construct their own heating and cooling systems, each building connects to the district system, hopefully saving money and resources along the way.

“Any technology company or hospital or restaurant or grocery that uses a lot of heating or cooling would be really attracted to a site,” Ochtera said. “In the long run, its a more efficient and reliable system. There are redundancies built in, so it’s much more reliable for the companies.”

Now Westminster city staff are asking the City Council to reallocate $300,000 budgeted for the Downtown Westminster project to investigate building a District Energy system there, connecting the budding development and making it more attractive to developers.

“This is really a competitive advantage for our downtown, if it moves forward,” Ochtera said. “Technology companies know that energy is one of their highest costs, next to labor and staffing. So, if they can find a competitive advantage in Downtown Westminster, I believe they’ll be coming.”

Ochtera said a similar system was built for the 2010 Olympic village in Vancouver and Xcel Energy operates one in downtown Denver.

“The cooling site there has six different plants, pretty much throughout the downtown,” he said. “I know the cooling side serves 12 million square feet and more than 50 buildings. It’s the oldest system of its kind in the nation.”

The systems use normal utilities, like electricity and natural gas, to heat or cool water in a closed system of pipes. That water is pumped through the member buildings via a series of heat exchanging pipes to control the buildings temperatures or to provide heating for swimming pools, laundry systems or refrigeration.

“We are not selling the hot or cold water, but the heating or cooling itself,” he said. “The idea is that we can provide heating and cooling for lower costs than if they had to build their own heating and cooling. And if that heating and cooling cost is less and more cost-effective in our Downtown Westminster, we believe that will attract high energy-using companies.”

Building owners, tenants and companies using the system would pay the city for the heat or the refrigeration they use.

City Councilors are scheduled to vote on reallocating the money at their March 23 meeting. The meeting is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. in Westminster City Hall.

The money was earmarked for unspecified energy projects around Westminster and other projects downtown.

The first $100,000 would go to develop two pro formas — one investigating the technical aspects of the idea and second studying the potential costs and revenues. The remaining money would go to hire consultants and experts in the field and legal experts.

He said the city would like to have the pro formas finished this summer, about the time designers of the Schnitzer West project begin design work for their project.

“One of the first questions they’ll have is if we have a district energy system they’ll connect to or will they have to create a standalone system for their building,” Ochtera said.

Cost-effectiveness

Westminster development staff began considering building an energy district as part of the Downtown Westminster development in 2017, but shelved the idea year later saying that there were not big enough developments committed to the site to make it truly viable.

That changed in November when the city announced two office projects, totaling 650,000 square feet of space, to Downtown Westminster. The city is partnering with developers Schnitzer West to develop the two sites in the Downtown.

The designs for the first office building is well underway and will include ground-floor retail with six to seven stories of office above. The building will be located in the heart of the 105-acre redevelopment site.

Ochtera said the Schnitzer developments could be the first projects to benefit from the energy district, if the city goes ahead. Existing projects — including the Alamo Drafthouse, the Eaton Street apartments and J.C. Penney store — as well as projects under construction like the Aspire apartments and Origin Hotel have not been built to use the heating system.

“But in 20 years, when it’s time for them to replace their heating system, they could have the option of joining the energy district,” he said.

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