Our history and future: Vicinity Energy in Grand Rapids


On May 1, 1888…

The City of Grand Rapids, in partnership with Thomas Edison, created the Grand Rapids Edison Light and Fuel Co., which kickstarted operations at the southwest corner of West Fulton Street and Ottawa Avenue. Having been designed by the Edison Light Co., the plant was handsomely styled with floors of polished hardwood and 16-foot walls of white pine with a natural finish. The four coal-fed boilers were tubular and rated at 150 H.P., each at 80 pounds of pressure to generate electricity and heating to support the growing city.

The engine and dynamo room housed three Taylor Beck high speed, non-condensing engines, each belted to a pair of Edison 125-volt direct current generators. The Fulton Street Plant not only powered the 19th century city’s trolley cars and incandescent street lightning, but also supported the rapidly growing furniture industry.

fulton sign grand rapids

In 1897, the first heating mains were installed in a new building next door, at the southeast corner of West Fulton and Market. The steam was turned on on October 15, 1897 and to this day, the Grand Rapids Heating Plant occupies that site.

By 1911, a report in the Common Council minutes revealed that 39 facilities were using steam heat from the central station. Contrary to popular belief at the time, there were no steam tunnels beneath the city of Grand Rapids, with the exception of a very early tunnel beneath Union Station which no longer exists.

An exciting system revamp

Consumers Energy Co. acquired operations of the facility in 1915, and eight years later, the plant was rebuilt in two different sections. From 1922 to 1927, the steam distribution system was further expanded into the downtown Grand Rapids area. These new steam mains replaced all existing mains installed prior to 1916. While low pressure pipes could originally be found under streets, newer installations were placed under sidewalks as they were cheaper and easier to access.

When urban renewal efforts took the city by storm in 1965, the old boilers were retired and replaced with three 100,000 pound-per-hour gas or oil-fired boilers. In addition, 125-pound steam mains were constructed to serve new buildings in the lower Monroe Street. In 1970, the fourth 150,000 pound-per-hour boiler was installed alongside a 125-pound steam main to serve St. Mary’s Free Bed Hospital Complex.

Kent County purchased the District Heating and Cooling Operations (DHCO) from Consumers Energy Co. in May of 1986.

Vicinity takes over operations

In 2008, Vicinity Energy acquired the Grand Rapids district energy facility and steam system from Kent County. The system is now primarily fed by natural gas, with a view toward the integration of higher environmentally sustainable fuel sources. Through investments in high efficiency technology and green energy sourcing, Vicinity delivers steam with a 38% lower carbon footprint vs. traditional boiler plants.

Today, the steam distribution system consists of approximately seven miles of underground pipes: five miles of underground high-pressure distribution and two miles of low-pressure. Customers use steam for critical processes such as space heating sterilization, laundry, culinary use, humidification, domestic hot water, and melting snow.

The high-pressure system is nominally operated at 120 psig, and monitored at the Fulton Steam Plant through local gauges and at remote locations in the distribution system to ensure high reliability to all customers.

Saint Mary’s Hospital is the largest single customer of Vicinity’s Grand Rapids operations, while the City of Grand Rapids is the system’s largest customer in aggregate, with a total of 15 buildings on the system. Other major buildings included the Public Museum, City Hall, Federal Building, State Building, County Courthouse, Amway Grand Plaza, Plaza Towers, the Van Andel Institute, DeVos Convention Center, Downtown Parking Ramps, the Van Andel Arena, and the Monroe Mall, along with various snow melt systems.

The advantages of district energy

Today, the Vicinity-owned and operated district energy system serves 112 individual properties throughout Grand Rapids including hospitals, universities, hotels, and other residential and commercial buildings. Vicinity Energy has invested over $10 million in plant and distribution system improvements to increase the facility’s energy reliability, resiliency, and cost-effectiveness, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 11,000 tons annually.

There are various advantages to opting for a district energy system like Vicinity’s, especially for older buildings undergoing restoration.

District energy service replaces the need for in-house boilers and domestic water heating systems in many of the city’s most prominent buildings, saving installation and maintenance costs, as well as valuable building space, and reduces overall risk of operations.

In Grand Rapids, where cold weather is frequent, district energy is the optimal choice for reliability needs: the system has built-in redundancy within their central plants and networks, meaning it can leverage multiple generating assets and fuel, power, and water sources.

The city and community of Grand Rapids is committed to addressing climate change and district energy is also meeting the demands for more sustainable energy service.

With its history of fuel switching, from coal to oil to natural gas, district energy is uniquely poised to switch to more sustainable fuel sources like renewables as they become available. As part of Vicinity’s clean energy future roadmap, all our operations around the country will be decarbonized by 2050 or sooner, and in turn reducing the carbon footprint of Grand Rapids.

Exciting new territory

In February of 2023, Vicinity proudly welcomed new Grand Rapids-based employees and celebrated taking over operations of the Kent County Waste-to-Energy facility. The takeover of this 18MW plant is expected to save Kent County in operating costs annually while reinforcing Vicinity’s commitment to quality service, the environment, and the local workforce.

Kent County WTE Vicinity sign

Vicinity has welcomed the existing plant employees to its team and will hire more team members to ensure safe, efficient, and reliable services are delivered to the residents and businesses served by the facility. This partnership marks a critical milestone in Vicinity’s commitment to sustainability and bringing new jobs and services to West Michigan.

Learn more about our electrification plan in our white paper.

Vicinity Energy White Paper - Revolutionizing Urban Sustainability

Jesse Douglas

Based in Grand Rapids, Jesse Douglas is Vicinity's Vice President and General Manager, responsible for overseeing daily operations and leading sales development efforts. Jesse writes about topics related to district heating and cooling and the clean energy transition.