Why the Mona Lisa in the Louvre keeps a smile: the refrigeration system of Paris

The Mona Lisa it can keep its famously enigmatic smile because it benefits from one of Paris’ best-kept secrets: an underground refrigeration system that has helped the Louvre cope with sweltering heat that has broken temperature records across Europe.

The little-known network of “urban cold” meanders unsuspectingly under the feet of Parisians as deep as 30 meters (98 feet), pumping icy water through 89 kilometers (55 miles) of labyrinthine pipes, used to cool the air. on more than 700 sites. The system, which uses electricity generated by renewable sources, is the largest in Europe and works 24 hours a day with a deafening noise totally inaudible on the surface.

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The Paris City Council has now signed an ambitious contract to triple the size of the network by 2042 to 252 kilometers (157 miles). Would make it the largest urban refrigeration system in the world. The new contract is intended to help the city adapt and combat the threat of global warming. Many parts of Europe reached 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in July.

The city will extend the cooling network to hospitals, schools and subway stations over the next two decades. It is not clear how much of the system will be operational when the Paris Olympics are held in 2024, but it is possible that the systems will be used at multiple Olympic sites.

mona lisa, mona lisa louvre, louvre cooling system A worker inspects machines in part of the Fraicheur de Paris underground cooling system in Paris. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

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Unbeknownst to millions of tourists, the pipe currently cools the most emblematic places in the City of Light, such as the Port and the Quai Branly Museum. It could even help calm the temper of agitated legislators, as it is used to lower the temperature in the National Assembly.

The scheme is operated by the Fraicheur de Paris joint venture, 85% owned by French state energy company EDF and the rest by public transport operator RATP. Company officials promote their profits to all French capital.

“If all (Parisian) buildings are equipped with autonomous installations (such as air conditioning), a very significant urban ‘heat island’ effect will gradually be created,” said Maggie Schelfhaut of Fraicheur de Paris, referring to the rise in heat in the cities. for less vegetation, which cools, and more urban infrastructure, which absorbs the sun’s rays.

But Schelfhaut said the network of pipes could make all of Paris a degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) cooler than if autonomous facilities were installed throughout the city.

“One degree less in the center of the city is a lot,” he added.

mona lisa, mona lisa louvre, louvre cooling system The Louvre museum benefits from one of Paris’ best-kept secrets, an underground cooling system that has helped the Louvre cope with sweltering heat that has broken temperature records across Europe. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

Three of the 10 high-tech cooling sites are located on the River Seine and accessed by a retractable spiral staircase barely visible from street level, in something akin to the lair of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” .

When the water from the Seine is cold enough, a machine captures it and uses it to cool the water in the system. The heat created as a by-product is returned to the Seine, where it is absorbed. The chilled water is then pumped through the system’s pipes to its 730 Parisian customers.

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All refrigeration sites in Paris use renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. The construction of four new solar energy sites that will feed this network is also planned. French officials see this energy independence as particularly important given the threat of Russia cutting off energy supplies to Europe.

Russian energy corporation Gazprom on Wednesday reduced the amount of natural gas flowing through a major pipeline from Russia to Europe to 20% of its capacity. European nations are racing to find alternatives amid fears that Russia may completely cut off gas exports, which are used for industry, generate electricity and cool homes, to try to gain political influence over the bloc.

louvre mona lisa, paris underground cooling system A map of the operational sites of Fraicheur de Paris, an underground cooling system in Paris. Entirely powered by electricity generated from renewable energies, it is the largest in Europe and goes unnoticed on the surface. (AP Photo/Lewis Joly)

The advantages of using a refrigeration system that uses renewable energy to operate are already being felt at the sites that use them. The world’s most visited museum, the Louvre, has benefited from the network since the 1990s, with officials proud of its ecological, economic and art conservation benefits.

“It allows us to benefit from energy with a lower carbon footprint available throughout the year,” said Laurent Le Guedart, Heritage Director of the Louvre. “The particularity of the Louvre Museum is that it needs ice water to properly preserve the work of art and control humidity.”

The Louvre doesn’t use air conditioning, and officials say the cooling also gains them much-needed floor space in the sprawling but cramped former palace, which houses 550,000 works of art.

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Le Guedart said the system saves money given rising energy costs related to the Ukraine conflict. He operates in particular in the State Room of the Pavillon Denon where the Mona Lisa lives. Perhaps that is why beads of sweat have never trickled down Leonardo da Vinci’s painted forehead.

“The Louvre’s energy bill is around 10 million euros per year in 2021. We are trying to control this bill as much as possible, amid the obvious fluctuations and increases in energy costs,” Le Guedart said.

The system could save you millions by cushioning the blow as Russia continues to roil the energy market.

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