Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has undergone many changes since the 1800s. Once a heavily industrial area, Kendall is now home to the world’s leading biotech and research facilities.
The Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company—an organization that produced fire hoses, ink stamps, and ink, along with the candy manufacturers along Main Street—was one of the first customers served by Vicinity’s original Kendall Square facility. The main steam line that runs from Kendall Station through Kendall Square was installed to feed that hose and rubber company.
In the sixties, these industrial companies gave way to new technology. For example, the Polaroid Corporation was founded right here in Cambridge by Edwin Land and George W. Wheelwright III in 1937.
At this point, the invention of the Polaroid camera was groundbreaking. The company built an empire from that idea, and employed research and university graduates to build it. In the 1980s, with the advent of digital photography, the company all but evaporated. However, biotech later reinvented the area using the same model and university brain power to find cures for chronic illnesses. Today, Edwin H. Land Blvd, named after the inventor of the Polaroid camera, runs behind our Kendall Square facility, honoring his legacy.
At the end of the line is a company called Cambridge Brands, the only place in the world that makes Junior Mints! The factory produces 15 million Junior Mints a day.
Visitors to Kendall Square often have trouble believing that an operating energy facility is in the area. This neighborhood looked drastically different when our facility was built in the 1940s. Today, a fully functional city has sprouted around our facility with lively restaurants, farmers’ markets, kayak renting, and more.
As Kendall Square has evolved, our facility and reliable steam services have remained constant. While some processes and fuels have changed, Vicinity’s system has provided thermal energy to Boston and Cambridge for almost 100 years. Despite our old roots, Vicinity’s mission is at the forefront of decarbonizing both Cambridge and Boston. Leveraging existing infrastructure, our facility is the most viable means to quickly and effectively decarbonize the buildings we serve in a timely and efficient manner.
Vicinity’s Cambridge location is currently home to three facilities, with the original facility being a yellow brick building built in 1948 by the Cambridge Electric Light Company. This building contained three 1300 PSI power boilers and was constructed as a coal-fired Rankine cycle facility, meaning the power boilers drove over condensing turbines. The facility also contained three 25 MW Westinghouse Steam Turbines and used the river for cooling as part of its original design. The main steam line runs from Kendall Station through Kendall Square and was installed to feed the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company.
When the combustion turbine was put in, they needed to bridge the two systems to make a combined cycle plant. Today, all of our systems are tied together, so steam, electricity, condensate, and all auxiliaries are now shared between the two plants.
In 1900, coal was primarily used as an energy source, so the facility was designed to burn coal, but that luckily lasted only a short time. The coal was gradually converted to heavy oils and then into natural gas. Today, we use the efficient combined heat and power (CHP) process to generate heat and electricity simultaneously.
A unique feature of district energy is that it is fuel agnostic, which allows these systems to utilize any fuel source to generate steam. Over the years, our facilities have pivoted as more sustainable fuel sources have become available, and we are continuing the legacy of prioritizing cleaner energy.
Energy goes out through two different steam lines within our facility. One is over the Longfellow Bridge. Anyone who has seen a movie filmed in Boston has likely noticed an iconic shot of this bridge.
The second steam line comes out of the plant and goes past the Cambridge Parkway, the Museum of Science, and further into the city of Boston.
The canal behind our facility was once used for commerce, running all the way up into the city. Barges would come up through the canal to deliver coal, oil, and other goods into the city of Cambridge. With the decline of coal-powered energy, the canal was truncated and is now appreciated by residents and tourists who use the water for recreational activities such as canoeing and kayaking.
When our facility was built, the city required a boardwalk for pedestrians and public use. We maintain the boardwalk to this day, and the public frequently enjoys it.
JFK & NASA
A fun fact about our Kendall facility is its connection to John F. Kennedy (JFK) and NASA. In the early 1960s, JFK, originally from Cambridge, set the ambitious goal of going to the moon. He famously stated, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
And so, to achieve his goal, he needed to develop a space authority known today as NASA. In 1964, Kendall Square became home to NASA’s Electronics Research Center (ERC) to support NASA’s electronics research during the Apollo era and served as a graduate and post-graduate training center.
The ERC needed power, and our Kendall facility was the perfect location to house all the materials necessary to accommodate NASA’s Kendall Square operations.
Vicinity aquires Kendall Station
In 2013, the Lechmere Viaduct Steam Line doubled its green steam capacity to serve Boston, making Kendall Station’s combined heat and power the main source of thermal district energy in the city. The following year, Vicinity officially acquired Kendall Station with partner I-Squared and began investing in the system’s longevity and reliability for customers.
Vicinity has since remained committed to improving the facility to meet the growing needs of Boston and Cambridge while opting to use the greenest technologies available. From 2015 to 2018, Vicinity upgraded the water treatment system, converted the system to dual fuel, and installed a new back-pressure steam turbine and an air-cooled condenser to eliminate heat discharge to the river. We made an $8 million investment to double the plant’s water makeup capacity and installed a system to utilize 100% Charles River water for purification purposes.
Vicinity additionally replaced the air intake system for the GE 7FA Gas Turbine and upgraded the turbine to the latest technology to maximize efficiency. In 2021, Vicinity implemented biogenic fuels derived from waste vegetable oil and fats discarded by the food service industry. Biofuels are significantly cleaner than gasoline and fully biodegradable, so this change resulted in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and improved local air and water quality.
Vicinity’s recent clean energy strides at Kendall
Most recently, Vicinity has been researching, sourcing, purchasing, and installing an electric boiler in the main turbine hall. Vicinity will gradually transition away from its cogeneration turbine by installing electric boilers and heat pumps at the Kendall facility. Furthermore, Vicinity plans to purchase wholesale renewable power to generate and distribute eSteam™, a carbon-free renewable thermal energy product, to customers.
On April 5, 2023, Vicinity Energy announced its partnership with Augsburg, Germany-based MAN Energy Solutions to collaborate in developing low-temperature source heat pump systems for steam generation. Vicinity plans to install an industrial-scale heat pump complex at Kendall by 2026. Once constructed, Vicinity’s heat pump complex will be the largest in Massachusetts.
Vicinity’s first heat pump complex, which draws from proven examples in Europe, will be powered by renewable electricity to safely and efficiently harvest energy from the Charles River, returning it at a lower temperature. Because the heating sector accounts for 30-40 percent of global CO2 emissions, the global energy transition can only succeed with considerable strides to decarbonize heat. Instead of burning fossil fuels for heating purposes, water-source heat pumps use heat sources, such as lakes, rivers, or the ocean, efficiently.
Vicinity follows the example of a few cutting-edge European cities, such as Glasgow, Scotland, and Drammen, Norway. In 2021, the first water-sourced heat pump opened in Glasgow, allowing them to tap into the River Clyde, just as Vicinity will do with the Charles River.