District energy electrification: the new disruptor in a decarbonizing world


Today, buildings generate a substantial amount of the world’s annual carbon emissions – 40%, to be exact. And while historically it has been difficult and costly for buildings to comply with decarbonization efforts, district energy systems are rising to the challenge. District energy is the new disruptor in a decarbonizing world.

Agile, fuel-agnostic district energy systems can easily switch to lower-carbon, local energy sources at their central facilities. Because these systems deliver thermal energy to multiple buildings and millions of square feet at a time, any swap to lower-carbon fuel sources has a much wider-reaching green impact and costs building owners significantly less than building-by-building retrofits. Making changes or upgrades to conventional onsite boilers or chiller plants at each building is a much more time-consuming and expensive endeavor.

In this way, the electrification of district energy systems is a game changer for the climate, our communities, and our collective future. Such a game changer, in fact, that electrification is the backbone of Vicinity Energy’s commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions across all its operations by 2050.

Electrifying Boston, Cambridge and beyond

In the first initiative of its kind in the United States, Vicinity is already in the process of electrifying our district energy facilities in Boston and Cambridge. Modeled after best-practices in other leading European and Canadian cities, this approach includes the installation of electric boilers, industrial-scale heat pumps, and molten salt thermal battery storage at our central facilities.

Our ability to access power allows us to keep costs down, while also delivering superior reliability. By purchasing electricity from renewable, carbon-neutral energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro, we can provide a cleaner energy product. But we’re not stopping there: over time, we’ll apply our approach to the rest of our districts, with Philadelphia closely following Boston and Cambridge.

The investments Vicinity is making at our central facilities will immediately green the energy serving customers throughout Boston and Cambridge.

So, what will these new investments actually look like and how will this work? The roadmap to net zero includes several key components, as outlined in our latest white paper:

  • Producing renewable energy at transmission level rates and integrating them into our fuel mix
  • Electrifying energy generation by converting our operations to electric boilers and heat pumps
  • Installing molten salt thermal batteries, which will allow us to buy energy when it’s most affordable and store it for use during peak demand

Our phased plan for the electrification of our Boston and Cambridge facilities serves as a sustainable blueprint for our districts around the country, as well as other leading district energy companies like Con Edison in New York City who are looking to us for best-practices in creating their own path to decarbonization.

As Vicinity’s Chief Sustainability Officer Matt O’Malley so aptly stated in an interview: “We only have one choice—that’s to be bold on climate. Vicinity is doing it.”

Electrification success overseas

Vicinity’s plan is built upon best practices, proven technologies, and investments in sustainable infrastructure to reduce our overall environmental impact. And while our strategy is the first of its kind in the U.S., the electrification of district energy systems has proven successful in various European and Canadian cities throughout the years. We plan to build from these best practices and make a similar impact nationwide.

When Finland’s capital Helsinki sought a way to heat the city as sustainably as possible, they launched the international Helsinki Energy Challenge in February of 2020. Finland, like much of the European Union, has ambitious climate regulations in place that require the country to be carbon neutral by 2035, and place a ban on coal from energy production by 2029. With 90% of buildings in Helsinki connected to the city’s district heating system, the outcome of this contest would prove significant.

The solutions that took the prize? Converting to renewable energy sources and electrification.

In conjunction with the shift to renewables in Helsinki’s district heating networks, the contest’s winning solutions are designed to harness renewable electricity from heat pumps to drive the city’s transition to carbon neutrality.

Kaisa-Reeta Koskinen, Manager of the Carbon Neutral Helsinki project, commented on the urgency of the city’s transition: “We have to get rid of fossil fuels fully, and quite quickly. If at this point we start investing into fossil fuels, even if they are not as bad as coal, it is going to be a bad investment.”

Almost a decade earlier, a similar transition took place in the heating networks of Drammen, Norway, with notable success. In 2011, Star Renewable Energy installed the world’s largest 90°C natural heat pump in conjunction with the district energy system in Drammen. The heat pump extracts heat from the cold water in an adjacent fjord to heat homes and businesses across the city.

Since January 2011, the project has delivered over 15MW of heat for the Drammen community of 60,000 people. The city has realized an annual savings of around €2m a year, as well as 1.5m tonnes of carbon — the equivalent of taking more than 300,000 cars off the road each year.

It’s time for the U.S. to take inspiration from these success stories overseas and work harder to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to heat, cool, and power buildings. The use of electric boilers and heat pumps in district energy systems has long been acknowledged as a proven solution for rapid and cost-effective building decarbonization in urban centers around the world.

Driving change with strategic private-public partnerships

It’s clear that strong policy, regulations and collaboration among organizations, as evidenced by the Helsinki Energy Challenge in Finland, encourage and spur innovative and sustainable solutions to decarbonize our cities. The success of district energy electrification in Drammen demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships (PPP) to achieve widespread decarbonization objectives.

Public-private partnership is essential to the development and evolution of decarbonization programs. The private sector’s knowledge of emerging technologies, in combination with progressive policymaking in the public sector, can accelerate the adoption of greener products and services.

European and Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Helsinki, Drammen and many more serve as testament to the success of leveraging district energy to meet aggressive emissions targets through electrification.

Through advances in policy and utilizing the unique assets we already have, Vicinity Energy’s electrification strategy is poised to lead the charge towards a clean energy future.

To learn more about our electrification strategy, get your free copy of our latest white paper today.

Learn more about our electrification plan in our white paper.

Vicinity Energy White Paper - Revolutionizing Urban Sustainability

Sara DeMille

Sara DeMille is Vicinity's Senior Director of Marketing and Communications, and she is based in Boston, MA. She writes about topics related to district energy electrification, a clean energy future, and Vicinity's offerings.