The ice machine that chills Chicago’s skyscrapers: Inside downtown’s district cooling systems


CHICAGO — If you drive under the Old Main Post Office on the Eisenhower Expressway, just over the river you’ll see a nondescript building that’s easy to miss. The building appears to have a windowless concrete pedestal, and power equipment on the roof.

Most people “just don’t know exactly what it is that they’re looking at,” according to Geoff Bares, an engineer who works inside.  

It just might be one of the most important buildings in the city. It’s CenTrio Plant No. 2, near the corner of South Franklin and West Van Buren Streets.  

“You don’t see our pipes running everywhere, so we are very non-descript in that way,” Jim Rylowicz, CenTrio vice presidents of business development said. “We build ice at night when the strain on the electricity grid is the lowest, prices are lowest.” 

CenTrio is a district energy company with operations in multiple cities. In Chicago, it runs the largest district cooling network in North America, helping make the city livable and workable when the mercury rises in the sweltering summer months. 

“We serve the downtown area with chilled water for their cooling needs,” Rylowicz said. “Mainly air-conditioning for their high-rise buildings.” 

Air conditioning is becoming more and more important as climate change impacts our weather. The non-profit researcher Climate Central recently released data showing that Chicago summers are getting hotter, with an average of seven additional summer days above normal temperature than the city experienced in 1970. 

CenTrio is taking the concept of “central air conditioning” and applying it to Chicago’s central business district.

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