Back to the Future Day arrived on October 21, demonstrating which of the movie’s predictions turned out wrong. Remember Mr. Fusion, the personal fusion energy reactor powered by garbage? That certainly didn’t come true. Instead what we get is the UN Environment Program recommending district energy systems – a design older than the Model T – as “the most effective approach” for transitioning to sustainable energy. How did that happen?

Despite the Hollywood hype, it turns out some inventions work really well. One of them is district energy, an idea that dates back to ancient Rome but received its first commercial application in 1877. With a district energy system, thermal energy is produced at a central plant and distributed to the community through an underground piping network, reducing energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Pairing this with a new technology – cogeneration – is a sustainable way to recycle the waste heat generated from electricity production and convert it into useful thermal energy. While a traditional power plant discards its waste heat, wasting valuable energy, a cogeneration solution does two things at once: It produces electricity and can then distribute the excess heat through a district energy system for customers to use.

There are tremendous benefits for customers who sign up for these district energy systems, including a reduction in capital costs, improvements in reliability and reduction in carbon footprints.

Veolia meets the critical energy requirements of downtown Boston/Cambridge this way, supplying environmentally friendly thermal energy known as “Green Steam.” Up to 75 percent of the district energy supply is green steam, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 475,000 tons annually (the equivalent of removing 80,000 cars from the roads), and reducing non-transportation carbon emissions 6 percent for both cities.

District energy is one of the best and cheapest ways for reducing carbon emissions, which is especially relevant during COP21. Not bad for a system of energy distribution that’s been around longer than instant coffee, crossword puzzles and zippers. All of this goes to show that, sometimes, there’s no school quite like the old school.

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