District energy supports higher education climate plans and journeys to 100% carbon neutrality

With approximately 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S., there is a significant opportunity to improve the energy efficiency of campus buildings and the communities they operate in. According to the U.S. Energy Information Association, higher education campuses consume approximately 18.9 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 17 cubic feet of natural gas per square foot of floor space yearly, equating to significant carbon footprints and high energy costs.

In recent years, more than 330 universities and colleges have established climate action plans with aggressive targets, including becoming 100% carbon-neutral campuses by 2050 or sooner. To realize these ambitious goals, these institutions need to reduce building emissions and optimize energy efficiency while maintaining reliability with their energy solution.

Consisting of hundreds of academic buildings, medical centers, dormitories, and lab spaces, many university campuses are nestled in urban areas close to Vicinity’s district energy systems. Several major universities in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, West Virginia, and other cities have long histories of relying on district energy for heating, cooling, lab processes, and humidification control.

Vicinity currently provides steam and chilled water to 23 higher education campuses, totaling over 32 million square feet of building space. These academic institutions use district energy to keep their campuses operating smoothly and leverage district energy to underscore their commitment to improving the world, combatting climate change, and fulfilling their sustainability missions. These efforts ultimately help attract sustainability-minded students and enable the universities to gain national attention for their impressive sustainability accomplishments.

Why district energy is a trusted solution

Vicinity partners with higher education institutions to explore opportunities for energy efficiency improvement and strategies to meet carbon neutrality. In collaboration with the universities’ facilities teams, Vicinity helps optimize their campuses’ energy consumption and reduce their carbon footprints with reliable district steam, tailored preventative maintenance programs, and training sessions. eSteamTM, Vicinity’s carbon-free renewable energy product, is an innovative solution for universities and colleges with the most aggressive carbon reduction goals, ensuring they are on the fastest track to eliminate their campus’ carbon emissions.

In particular, Emerson College leverages eSteamTM to not only achieve the City of Boston’s carbon emissions reduction targets established as part of BERDO 2.0 but also achieve its own sustainability goals, which are even more aggressive than the city’s mandate. With eSteamTM, Emerson is on a streamlined path to a carbon-neutral and resilient campus by 2030.

Continuous improvement drives reliability and efficiency

Vicinity and many of our higher education customers have worked closely together over the years to drive improvements at Vicinity’s central facilities and on their campuses. As Vicinity upgrades our central district energy facilities, higher education customers immediately reap the benefits, including improved reliability and reduced carbon emissions.

As Vicinity continues to upgrade our central district energy facilities with electric boilers, heat pumps, and thermal storage as part of our Clean Energy Future commitment, district energy will further align with schools’ climate action goals. While we are first kicking off our electrification plans in Boston and Cambridge to support schools like Emerson College, we are rolling out these upgrades to our other locations. Emerson and other schools’ climate action goals highlight their commitment to a cleaner future, and their notable progress towards reducing their impact on the planet through district energy underscores their bold leadership in a climate-uncertain world.

Proactive maintenance supported by Vicinity’s experts 

Vicinity partners with schools to improve their operations by offering training tailored to the unique needs of the facilities teams and providing operations and maintenance support. Vicinity’s onsite training equips the facilities teams with the tools to proactively maintain their equipment and prevent interruptions in service, which is especially critical for medical campuses. Topics include steam trap inspections, pressure regulating valves (PRVs), and other critical equipment.

District energy for critical campus operations 

Our energy solutions for higher education facilities are reliable and green, helping advance the innovations that propel our customers and communities forward and protect the world we live in.

  • Increased reliability and sustainability – Without the burden of onsite combustion or maintaining chillers or boilers, district energy is a safer and more sustainable alternative. We have a 99.99% reliability guarantee and a team of over 450 energy experts, allowing you to focus on your work while we ensure 24/7 energy delivery.
  • Optimal sterilization and humidification – The CDC recommends steam sanitation over conventional sanitation methods. Vicinity can provide a safer, more environmentally friendly energy solution to keep your educational workspaces and laboratories primed for innovation.
  • Uninterrupted energy supply – Proper operations and maintenance (O&M) of energy infrastructure is essential to ensuring that campus buildings, including dormitories, laboratories, and research facilities, can rely on an uninterrupted thermal energy supply.
  • Remote monitoring – If your campus needs energy O&M support by a qualified engineer but does not require someone full-time onsite, we can provide remote monitoring of your energy infrastructure at our innovative control centers.
  • Energy efficiency and optimization – From efficiency assessments and investments to project implementation, our experts will create and provide a custom energy strategy to optimize your campus energy assets and provide solutions that drive energy efficiency.

Get started with district energy today to decarbonize your campus’ buildings and access reliable, uninterrupted service.

Our history and future: Vicinity Energy in Philadelphia

Vicinity Energy, a trusted and reliable provider of district energy solutions, has a deep-rooted history in Philadelphia. District energy has been an integral part of the city’s energy infrastructure for over a century, evolving alongside the city of Philadelphia’s growth and development.

District energy’s early beginnings in Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s district energy system dates back to 1889 when the Edison Electric Light Company of Philadelphia—which later became part of the Philadelphia Electric Company—generated and sold electricity from its central facility at 908 Sansom Street. The company created an additional source of revenue by using exhaust steam from the facility’s engines to provide heating to a nearby house at 917 Walnut Street.

In 1903, a year after several local electrical companies consolidated to form the Philadelphia Electric Company, the company opened the first large-scale, centralized power facility in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill Station. Located at the intersection of Christian Street and Schuylkill Avenue, the facility’s original boiler house consisted of forty boilers powered by coal, which arrived by barge up the Schuylkill River.

Over the years, Philadelphia Electric Company made various updates to the facility to keep up with the increasing demand for electricity and different kinds of electricity used for various applications. In 1911, due to the demand for 25-cycle electricity to supply the street railway system, a frequency changer substation was installed to convert 60-cycle to 25-cycle.​ A year later, due to rapidly increasing demand for the 60-cycle system, the company’s transmission voltage had to undergo a material increase from a 6,000-volt two-phase system to a 13,200-volt three-phase system. In 1917, a 20MW 25-cycle turbine generator was installed.

As demand for both 60-cycle and 25-cycle electricity continued to increase, a new facility was built alongside the original Schuylkill Station. This new facility, known as Building A-2 at the time, ​housed a 35MW 60-cycle turbine generator—the world’s largest at the time—and a 30MW 25-cycle turbine generator.

In 1937, the ever-increasing need to supply Philadelphia with more 60-cycle power facilitated another major expansion at the station.​ Two 1250 pounds per square inch (psi) boilers were installed, superimposed over the existing equipment.​ The original 40 boilers in the station were removed, and a 50MW turbine generator was installed. This was a non-condensing turbine, which exhausted steam at 230 psi. The generator was also hydrogen-cooled, an innovative and efficient solution at the time.​

As the Philadelphia Electric Company built other steam-generating facilities, like Willow Street Station, and developed its energy infrastructure, the company constructed a vast underground network to serve various buildings around the city with steam. The system became the third-largest district steam heating system in the United States. In 1950, Schuylkill Station was integrated into Philadelphia’s steam distribution network and eventually became the predominant steam supply. In 1957, 908 Sansom Street was rebuilt as a steam facility with additional boilers installed over the years. In 1997, a 163MW combined cycle plant, known as the Grays Ferry facility, made up of a 118MW gas turbine and 45MW steam turbine, was installed to efficiently provide 1.4 million pounds per hour of steam, displacing the existing 1937 generator and boilers.

A rich history of fuel switching

While coal was used as the steam facilities’ primary fuel source, the boilers were converted to oil in 1937 and later used natural gas. Today, Vicinity’s Grays Ferry facility relies on the efficient combined heat and power (CHP) process to generate heat and electricity simultaneously. Vicinity also leverages LR100 biogenic fuel, waste cooking oil discarded by the local food service industry, to generate steam​ while pushing the clean energy transition, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving local air quality.

How district energy supports Philadelphia today

Since Vicinity’s acquisition of Philadelphia’s district energy system in 2020, we have made significant investments in the infrastructure to improve reliability, resiliency, and efficiency. The Grays Ferry cogeneration facility serves over 72 million square feet of building space with steam, including notable landmarks such as the Walnut Street Theatre, 2 Liberty Place, and Jefferson Health.

The Grays Ferry cogeneration facility demonstrates our impact on the local energy landscape. By generating steam transported through a network of 41 miles of underground pipes, we provide heating and cooling to various Center City office buildings, healthcare, life science, and university campuses.

Our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is evident in the Grays Ferry facility operations. The district energy system has achieved an annual reduction of nearly 300,000 tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to removing almost 65,000 cars from the roads yearly. This commitment to sustainability aligns with the City of Philadelphia’s broader climate goals and positions district energy as a critical solution in shaping the city’s clean energy future.

Electrification plans for Vicinity’s Grays Ferry facility

Our plans to electrify Grays Ferry demonstrate our commitment to sustainability and support for the city’s climate goals. To further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our carbon-free eSteam™ solution integrates renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydro and innovative technologies, including industrial-scale electric boilers and a heat pump complex to reduce the facility’s reliance on fossil fuels. Additionally, we plan to investigate thermal energy storage to optimize energy usage, lower costs, and increase efficiency.

Electrifying our Grays Ferry facility will substantially decrease the carbon emissions associated with steam production, aligning with Philadelphia’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

By engaging and partnering with local stakeholders, including government agencies, customers, community groups, and other organizations, we ensure we align with our customers and the city and community sustainability goals. These collaborations will help address potential challenges and identify opportunities for further improvements to contribute to a cleaner, greener Philadelphia for future generations.

Earth Day 2024: Vicinity Energy’s climate progress

Each year, on April 22nd, and throughout the month of April, millions of people around the world get involved in their communities and spread awareness for the environmental movement and the fight against climate change.  

In honor of Earth Day, our teams championed our commitment to sustainability by participating in clean-ups and community events in the areas we serve. Our commitment doesn’t end there: we’re proud to say our teams work to better our communities year-round.

Our progress to net zero carbon emissions

This year, our team has made significant progress in our commitment to sustainability and decarbonization. To achieve net zero carbon emissions across our operations, we are making critical changes at our central facilities in Boston and Cambridge, with our other systems in cities across the country to follow.

These sustainable upgrades will enable us to serve our customers with eSteam™, our renewable thermal energy product. eSteam is designed to rapidly decarbonize the highest source of emissions in major cities: commercial buildings.

To begin offering eSteam™, we are installing electric boilers, industrial-scale heat pumps, and thermal storage at our central facilities. This year, these plans have been set in motion with critical electrification upgrades.

Critical electrification updates

Vicinity started off Earth Month strong with the installation of our new, 42MW electric boiler at our Kendall facility in Cambridge. Our team has been working tirelessly to get this advanced technology up and running, and after months of preparation and coordination, it was finally installed. The boiler will soon deliver carbon-free eSteam™ to our customers.

This first electric asset will enter service in the summer of 2024, when we will procure electricity from renewable, carbon-free energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro to generate eSteam™. We will purchase this wholesale carbon-free power from the grid, import the power to our facility through a co-located electric substation, and use it to create steam with the electric boiler.

Our teams are also actively engineering the low-temperature source heat pump system that will be employed in conjunction with the electric boiler at our Kendall facility.

We are installing this industrial-scale heat pump complex at our Kendall facility in 2026. Rather than utilize natural gas, the system will allow us to extract energy from the Charles River and use it to preheat water for our new electric boiler, improving the overall efficiency of the system. From there, the water will be returned to the Charles River at a lower temperature so as to not damage the river’s ecosystems.

Over the next few years, our other district energy systems in Philadelphia and Grand Rapids, for example, will employ similar technologies to achieve net zero carbon emissions and offer eSteam™ to our customers. These locations are currently procuring electric boilers to be installed in the next year or two.

Vicinity Energy teams commemorate Earth Day

This year, Vicinity’s teams around the country took action to improve the environment and spread awareness of the environmental movement throughout Earth Month, leading up to Earth Day on April 22nd.

From cleaning up our local parks and rivers, to supporting community efforts, our employees took action this year to better the communities we serve for all.

Philadelphia

Boston and Cambridge

Oklahoma City

The Vicinity team in Oklahoma City participated in a river clean-up with OG+E. The team picked up trash along the riverbank of the Oklahoma River in downtown OKC. The event was a collaborative effort among multiple local businesses, and approximately 70 people participated in the clean-up efforts.

Baltimore

Our Baltimore team participated in the University of Maryland Baltimore County Community Day event. The event showcases groundbreaking research conducted at UMBC and its significant impact on the Baltimore community. The team talked with attendees about what electrification upgrades Vicinity Energy is making at its Baltimore facility. 

Preparing chilled water and cooling equipment for the summer

In the fall, looming cold temperatures and potential storms signal the need for preventative maintenance activities at Vicinity’s central facilities and customers’ buildings. However, as we approach summer’s warmer temperatures, preventative maintenance is just as important.

During the winter months, certain equipment often lies dormant, making it imperative to assess components of chilled water systems and other cooling equipment well in advance of heightened cooling demands. While some property owners diligently prepare their equipment for the impending heat, it is a timely reminder to consult with your energy provider regarding recommended preventive maintenance for the summer season, whether you rely on district chilled water or steam for cooling or manage your onsite chillers and cooling towers.

Why summer preventive maintenance is critical

As spring begins, it presents an opportunity to inspect cooling equipment that lay dormant throughout the heating season. Implementing preventive measures before the onset of summer and escalating temperatures can yield numerous benefits:

  • Improve equipment reliability, function, and overall lifespan
  • Reduce energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and operational costs
  • Prevent unplanned costs and even system downtime
  • Enhance safety and comfort for employees and building occupants
  • Maintain efficient energy delivery
  • Ensure the long-term sustainability of a property

How to prepare cooling equipment for warm weather

Partnering with our customers, Vicinity’s team tailors our preventive maintenance approach to the unique needs of each building. Preventive maintenance activities can be done at any time but are typically conducted in preparation for the winter and the summer to prepare for peak loads due to temperature changes.

Whether customers need support with recommissioning an onsite cooling system or performing seasonal shutdowns to prepare steam systems for the summer, Vicinity’s operations and maintenance experts can help ensure the equipment will operate effectively for the coming summer and the next heating season. Depending on the building’s system, our team can isolate a maintenance issue or conduct a small shutdown event to repair equipment. Ahead of summer temperatures, Vicinity’s team can test a building’s chilled water or steam system during off hours or weekends to identify any problems.

Several elements of cooling systems require inspection every year or more. Let’s dive into the most critical components buildings should focus on when preparing for the cooling season.

Heat exchanger and water samples

A heat exchanger is a system that transfers heat between a source and a working fluid. In the winter, district energy systems transfer heat from the hot water in the district heating system to the cold water in an individual building’s heating system. In the summer, district chilled water customers rely on this equipment to leverage Vicinity’s chilled water to circulate cool air throughout their buildings.

To ensure that heat exchangers function properly, Vicinity’s team takes water samples from the heat exchanger and tests the water for conductivity. This test helps ensure that tube bundles are not leaking and that city water is not entering the system through such leaks. It’s also important to make sure these systems are clean and are not experiencing any leaks.

Pressure Regulating Valves (PRVs)

Pressure regulating valves (PRVs) are designed to reduce incoming steam pressure to ensure safe steam distribution. Vicinity’s team identifies the PRV’s make, model, size, and serial number. They will then test the valve for leaks, clean orifices, check diaphragm plates, test the gauging, and set it to the desired system pressure.

Testing PRVs is important because failed PRVs may cause system over-pressurization and relief values to release steam into the atmosphere. If a PRV fails, it can also improperly cycle open and closed, oversupplying and then starving the downstream equipment of steam. Testing includes inspecting the PRV operating mechanism (pneumatic, hydraulic, or motor-operated). Whether a building turns off steam for summer or leverages steam for cooling purposes, PRV testing is critical for overall system efficiency and reducing any potential energy losses.

Mechanical room hot water loop

In a building’s mechanical room, Vicinity’s team inspects all piping, inlet/outlet temperatures, and pressures on heat exchangers and mechanical pumps.

This inspection confirms the adequate operation of key energy transfer equipment, such as heat exchangers, which supply building heat, hot water, and other process loads. It is also important to note the general condition and function testing of space heaters and heat tracing.

Cooling towers and chillers

Chillers and cooling towers are important components of some buildings’ cooling systems. While chillers cool down water using a refrigerant, which is then circulated through the building to absorb heat from the air, cooling towers then reject heat from the chillers’ condenser water and return it to the condenser at a lower temperature as part of the system’s refrigeration cycle.

Vicinity can partner with customers who do not leverage district chilled water and own onsite cooling towers and chillers, providing additional operation and maintenance support to ensure a seamless transition to summer.

Cooling tower maintenance activities for customers who own and operate onsite equipment include disinfecting equipment ahead of seasonal startup to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria; replacing oil in gearboxes to prevent friction and corrosion; performing vibration analysis to mitigate risks related to increased noise, safety concerns, and system inefficiencies; inspecting and repairing distribution spray pipes and nozzles; cleaning basins; and upgrading fan blades and drive shafts as needed.

Chiller maintenance includes removing any dirt or debris collected throughout the year to optimize airflow; checking levels of refrigerant and assessing if additional refrigerant should be added; inspecting all chiller and condenser pumps; cleaning and servicing all variable frequency drives (VFDs) and glycol heat exchangers, the equipment used to cool VFDs; taking oil samples and adjusting levels; and cleaning condenser tubes to maximize equipment lifespan and improve overall energy efficiency.

Summer preparedness checklist

Vicinity’s facilities, especially those with chilled water, take extensive measures to prepare for summer temperatures before the beginning of April. This ensures that our facilities and teams are prepared for any weather or heat-related emergency.

There are several steps that every building should take, however, to ensure summer readiness. Check out our complete checklist to prepare staff and equipment for the coming warm temperatures.

Vicinity’s experts are here to help

Taking proactive steps to maintain your building’s energy systems and prepare for the summer can lead to significant benefits. From lower energy use and carbon emissions to increased safety awareness, the effort invested in preparing your building for hot weather pays off.

Vicinity’s experts are here to help with all your energy needs year-round. Give our energy experts a call to:

  • Work on repairs
  • Submit quotes before the coming cooling season
  • Get help preparing your budgets for next year
  • Schedule a site visit to get preventive maintenance assessments from our team
  • Explore leveraging chilled water or steam for cooling
  • Get support for operating and maintaining your onsite chillers and cooling towers

Learn more about Vicinity’s comprehensive maintenance services offered year-round to optimize building systems’ efficiency, reliability, and cost savings.

Transforming district energy in Boston and Cambridge

As the Vicinity teams work hard to decarbonize our facilities across the country, we are sharing the key updates our facilities are undergoing during this transformation. The electrification of our operations is well underway in Boston and Cambridge, as our facilities across the country prepare to undergo similar processes in the coming months and years.

We are transforming our historic Kendall facility to meet our communities’ and customers’ needs by leveraging existing infrastructure and installing innovative technologies such as an industrial-scale electric boiler, a river-based heat pump complex, and thermal storage. The electrification of our operations will allow us to offer eSteam™, a carbon-free, renewable energy solution, to decarbonize our customers’ buildings and communities.

Learn more about the various updates we’re making to decarbonize our Boston and Cambridge operations below and stay tuned for all future updates on our progress.

Boston and Cambridge electrification progress

 

June 2024 update

As soon as the electric boiler arrived at Vicinity’s Kendall facility, the team wasted no time in beginning the installation work required to bring this project to life. During the months of April and May, structural steelwork was completed to allow access for operation and provide a framework for mechanical and electrical systems. Crews have been hard at work installing auxiliary pumps, boiler trim, steam piping, and valves that will integrate the boiler into the facility’s existing systems.

Electric boiler installation

 

March 2024 update

At the end of March, our first industrial-scale 42MW electric boiler was installed! After months of preparing our Kendall, MA facility for its arrival and installation, our team successfully carried out the complex process of installing this large-scale technology. The electric boiler is expected to be fully operational by the summer of 2024, and begin serving our Boston and Cambridge customers with carbon-free eSteam™.

Electric boiler installation

March 2024 update

In March, our team got to work preparing the space in our Kendall facility where the 42MW electric boiler will be installed. This area is being prepped, and recently our team finished assembling the platform that the electric boiler will rest upon once installed. The 42MW electric boiler has arrived at our Kendall facility and is expected to be fully operational by the summer of 2024.
 
Electric boiler platform
 

February 2024 update

Several upgrades are taking place throughout February as part of our Kendall facility’s electrification transformation. Several pieces of equipment are being removed, demolished, or prepared to be demolished, to make room for our more sustainable and efficient systems.

The areas that will be home to these technologies are being prepared for their installation, with various demolition projects underway and steelwork being prepared. The 42MW electric boiler has arrived at our Kendall facility and is expected to be fully operational by the summer of 2024. The 35MW industrial-scale heat pump complex is anticipated to enter service at our Kendall facility in 2028.

Electrification and efficiency upgrades and preparations begin

 

December 2023 update

In December, Vicinity’s Deputy CEO and President Kevin Hagerty and Senior Vice President of Engineering Pat Gillooly traveled to the MAN Energy Solutions’ Oberhausen and Berlin engineering offices and manufacturing and assembly facilities, along with our design team from Vanderweil Engineers.

Our team met with MAN to align our goals and objectives for the industrial-scale, river-based heat pump complex to be installed at our Kendall facility in Cambridge, MA, and better understand the team’s full capabilities in engineering and producing high-quality heat pumps and steam compressor systems.

Vicinity team travels to Germany to meet with MAN Energy Solutions team

 

November 2023

In November, we announced the arrival of our 42MW industrial-scale electric boiler at our Kendall Square facility in Cambridge. After passing a factory acceptance test with Vapor Power International and Precision Boiler, the boiler was delivered to our Kendall facility to be prepared for installation.

The boiler will be installed in the coming months and is expected to be fully operational by the summer of 2024.

The electric boiler is pivotal in Vicinity’s mission to provide sustainable solutions to our customers. Once operational, the boiler will enable the immediate production of eSteam™, our award-winning carbon-free thermal energy product.

Industrial-scale electric boiler arrives at Vicinity’s Kendall facility

 

November 2023

In November, our industrial-scale electric boiler underwent a factory acceptance test with Vapor Power International and Precision Boiler to ensure it was ready to be delivered and begin operating at our Kendall facility in Cambridge.

The rigorous test included several steps: the team examined the equipment in its final assembly process, then the boiler was disassembled, and the removed piping was painted before the boiler was re-assembled. It was inspected for quality assurance and to ensure the boiler met ASME standards. Then, power on the control cabinet was added. The Human Machine Interface (HMI) and the system’s screens and logic were reviewed. The simulation of alarm and trip signals in the control system was completed.

Finally, the teams discussed shipment details, details on re-assembly at the site, and what is involved in the commissioning and startup of the boiler. Vicinity’s Senior Performance Engineer Steve Murphy and Kendall Shift Supervisor Jeff Gawrys witnessed the performance testing.

Industrial-scale electric boiler undergoes factory acceptance testing

 
The electric boiler undergoes a factory acceptance test with Vapor Power International and Precision Boiler.
The electric boiler undergoes a factory acceptance test with Vapor Power International and Precision Boiler.

April 2023

In April, we announced our partnership with the Augsburg, Germany-based organization 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 our Kendall facility by 2028. Once installed, it will be powered by renewable electricity to harvest energy from the Charles River safely and efficiently, returning it to a lower temperature so as not to harm the river’s environment.

The Cambridge heat pump complex will have a steam export capacity of 35MW, occupy a space of around 25,000 sq ft., and circulate 24.5 million to 49 million gallons of water from the Charles River daily.

MAN Energy Systems and Vicinity Energy partner on the development of industrial-scale heat pumps

 

February 2023

In February, we announced a long-term partnership with our first eSteam™ customer, IQHQ, Inc., a premier life sciences real estate development company focused on leadership in sustainability. Vicinity will provide eSteam™, our carbon-free, renewable thermal energy offering, to IQHQ to rapidly decarbonize IQHQ’s developments in the Fenway neighborhood.

 

November 2022

In November 2022, we officially kicked off our electrification plans with the deconstruction of a steam turbine at our Kendall facility. In its place, we are installing an electric boiler, marking a critical step in our commitment to reaching net zero carbon emissions across our operations by 2050.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu joined us at our Kendall facility to commemorate the milestone.

Kicking off our electrification plans with Mayor Michelle Wu

 

The top three questions to help you decide between onsite natural gas boilers or district energy

Evaluating your energy options and making the right choice for long-term operations and sustainability goals

Choosing the right energy infrastructure for your building is essential. You need to install appropriate equipment to meet your load requirements and it’s important to consider a variety of factors that impact the best investment for you.

Facility managers and building owners have many options to consider when it comes to heating and cooling. In many U.S. cities, it’s common to compare the costs of installing and maintaining onsite natural gas boilers against using a centralized system, like district energy. However, evaluating these two options isn’t always straightforward. To ensure you’re comparing apples-to-apples and making the best energy decision to meet your business objectives, make sure to ask these three key questions:

  1. What are the lifecycle costs?
  2. What are my opportunity costs?
  3. Does this energy option align with our institutional objectives?

 

Calculating lifecycle costs

Here are our two cents: It’s easy to look strictly at the price of natural gas today and conclude that onsite gas boilers are the right economic choice for your facility. However, this is not always the case. It’s risky to evaluate a long-term investment by only accounting for one variable – fuel costs.

The most effective way to compare between onsite natural gas boilers and district energy is to calculate lifecycle costs. A lifecycle cost analysis is a powerful tool to determine the cost-effectiveness of the different investment options you’re considering. This analysis considers many factors, including the equipment’s purchase price, financing costs and operating and maintaining the equipment over time. Boiler maintenance is often overlooked but can be a significant expense.

A lifecycle cost analysis provides you with the most comprehensive picture of your energy options’ costs and benefits. You can use the data-backed lifecycle analysis to support your decision when discussing energy alternatives with internal stakeholders. Many of us feel the pressure to make long-term investment decisions in an uncertain and challenging environment, where capital and budgets are tight. Using this tool can help you feel confident you’ve done the work to validate and justify your decision through a robust analysis.

In any lifecycle cost analysis of gas boilers versus district energy steam, it’s essential to include and assess the following variables:

  • Financing costs: Both natural gas plants and district energy connections typically require an up-front investment. The investment size will vary mainly depending on the natural gas equipment and connection costs for district energy. Suppose you need to borrow money from the bank to purchase and install equipment or make other modifications to your space, including loan expenses. In that case, you will need to include the capital cost in your analysis. Interest expense is often overlooked and can be quite large, depending on the project’s size and your borrowing rate.Even if your organization has capital in the bank to cover the cost of a new plant, there is always an opportunity cost to using those funds for energy infrastructure, which we’ll cover in Assessing Your Opportunity Costs. You could use the capital to finance projects that are more aligned and core to your institutional priorities or toward revenue-generating investments.
  • Operations and maintenance (O&M): There are always costs associated with owning, operating and maintaining your equipment. O&M could include full-time staff (consider in your analysis the fully burdened labor costs inclusive of taxes, benefits, etc.) or contractors operating the system. It’s essential to check your local regulations to ensure that you factor in the appropriate number of people with the right qualifications/licensing to meet your city’s requirements. You will also need to account for ongoing maintenance, including parts replacements and future upgrades to keep your system running optimally.Natural gas plants tend to require much higher operating costs, especially over time as systems age, whereas district energy requires little to no O&M budgeting.
  • Variable energy costs: As discussed earlier, many facilities managers and building owners look at the low price of fuel and immediately assume an onsite natural gas plant is the answer. It’s undoubtedly a critical input to the decision-making process. But, to assess your variable energy costs, you need to consider not only the commodity itself but also supply costs and any expectations for increases in future consumption, such as an expansion of a hospital wing.While no one has a crystal ball, we are transitioning quickly to a low carbon economy where carbon taxes are more likely to be a reality. Any decision you make today will have consequences for the next few decades. While the fuel costs are a factor for both district energy and an onsite natural gas plant, many district energy companies are evaluating alternatives to gas and fossil fuels. District energy systems can evolve and adapt to different fuel sources as new technologies emerge.And, finally, evaluate the rate structure(s). It’s vital to ensure you fully understand the rates associated with natural gas and district energy. For example, are you being offered a firm or an interruptible rate? If it’s the latter, while often much less expensive, remember that your service can be interrupted at any time and that this could directly impact your operations.
  • Fixed costs: The fixed costs associated with each option need to be carefully assessed. District energy companies tend to charge a capacity rate, a charge to reserve capacity on the system to ensure your load is uninterrupted. Other fixed costs that should be incorporated are taxes and insurance, which can vary depending upon the option you are evaluating.

Assessing your opportunity costs

Even if you have the capital on hand to finance new equipment, there are always opportunity costs with every investment decision, such as losing potential gain from other alternatives. If you spend your cash on a new mechanical room, that leaves less budget to invest in your core operations. For a hospital, this could mean new technologies or equipment to treat patients, upgrades or expansions to tenant spaces for commercial real estate, or a new lab building on a college campus to educate students. All these examples tie directly to an organization’s core mission. Depending upon the required capital cost for an energy infrastructure project, it’s important to think about the investments you’re giving up or foregoing that could better serve your customers or constituents.

In addition to capital, there are opportunity costs associated with space, particularly in cities where it’s limited and expensive. How property managers utilize and leverage space is vital to the bottom line. Typically, mechanical rooms, large chiller or boiler plants and cooling towers take up a considerable amount of precious space within urban buildings. Of course, there could be other valuable uses for your space to consider, from amenities and retail to storage and parking.

Finally, consider the opportunity cost associated with an outage. Outages can impact your tenants’ safety, comfort or well-being of your patients. Interruptible rates are less expensive but provide the utility with the ability to interrupt your service on what could be a peak winter day or a critical business operation. Evaluating the cost of an outage and downtime is vital in assessing which option to select to best meet your energy needs.

Alignment with other institutional objectives

The last piece worth considering is the alignment of your decision with other institutional objectives. While it’s often difficult to put a dollar figure around objectives, positioning your energy investment to align with your organization’s goals can be valuable.

Many companies and institutions today have environmental, health and safety (EH&S) objectives. Energy decisions have a direct impact and correlation with environmental or sustainability goals. As organizations seek to reduce their carbon footprint, an energy infrastructure decision can be heavily influenced by expected emissions output. However, there are other EH&S-related impacts from an energy infrastructure decision, including the safety of occupants from onsite combustion, other onsite mechanical equipment, air quality and many other factors to consider.

As you evaluate your organization or facility’s options, carefully consider how each of them supports or detracts from your objectives. For example, will steam deliver more immediate carbon savings, relative to onsite combustion, to meet sustainability goals? And, importantly, review the policies your local jurisdictions are considering. These financial impacts on your organization shouldn’t be overlooked.

Making the right choice

Ultimately, the factors that lead to your energy infrastructure decision will be unique to your organization’s goals and circumstances. While there are many factors to consider when making an energy decision – from incentive programs, opportunity costs, sustainability objectives and more – a lifecycle cost analysis ensures you are comparing apples-to-apples to make an informed energy decision that meets your institution’s goals and objectives.

How district energy is helping commercial buildings meet Boston’s BERDO 2.0 requirements

Like many cities nationwide, Boston has set aggressive climate goals to curb the harmful effects of climate change. Boston aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050, meaning the City will only be able to release as much carbon as the environment can safely absorb.

But how does the City plan to make this happen?

In large part, carbon neutrality will come from decarbonizing the energy-intensive buildings that operate in Boston: commercial offices, hospitals, colleges and universities, and many others.

The Building Emissions Reductions and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO), originally enacted in 2013, required large Boston buildings to report and disclose their emissions.

In 2021, however, the amended ordinance — BERDO 2.0 — was unanimously passed by the Boston City Council and signed into law, officially moving the ordinance beyond reporting and setting enforceable emissions standards for buildings. In 2023, BERDO 2.0 policies and procedures were finalized.

Crucially, the ordinance aims to eliminate the 70% of greenhouse gas emissions that commercial buildings contribute to the City of Boston.

What BERDO 2.0 means for Boston building owners and developers

The 2021 amendment to BERDO gives the City of Boston authority to set emissions standards for large existing buildings. The emissions thresholds will decrease to reach net zero by 2050.

BERDO 2.0 states enforceable minimum building emissions performance standards, measured in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent per square foot per year. These emissions standards differ by building use but will begin to apply in 2025 for already-covered buildings and in 2030 for newly-covered buildings. Based on 2022 emissions reporting, several hundred buildings in Boston are projected to exceed their emissions limit in 2025.

BERDO 2.0 also imposes changes in enforcement penalties. The amended ordinance introduced fines for failing to meet the performance standard and inaccurate reporting.

BERDO 2.0 does not just apply to commercial buildings, but also applies to the following:

  • Non-residential buildings that are 20,000 square feet or larger.
  • Residential buildings that have 15 or more units.
  • Any parcel with multiple buildings that sum to at least 20,000 square feet or 15 units.

In addition, the amended ordinance proposes potential ways buildings can achieve their required emissions reductions, including on-site energy efficiency or renewable energy measures, fuel switching, and clean electricity purchasing options like Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (RPS) Class I eligible Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) generated by non-CO2e emitting sources, and Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with non-CO2e emitting renewable sources.

To find out whether they are over the emissions limit and get an estimated emission reduction forecast, buildings can use the City of Boston’s BERDO emissions calculator. 

How district energy meets BERDO 2.0 requirements

Our team of experts at Vicinity is prepared to help building owners and developers in Boston meet the aggressive emissions reduction requirements posed by BERDO 2.0 and avoid paying alternative compliance payments.

Our clean energy future plan outlines our roadmap to reaching net zero carbon emissions across all our operations by 2050 or sooner. Central to our decarbonization plan is the innovative eSteam™ product.

To generate eSteam™, Vicinity will import carbon-free electrons through co-located substations to power electric boilers, coupled with industrial-scale heat pumps and thermal batteries, to deliver electrified, carbon-free steam, known as eSteam™, for heating, cooling, sterilization, humidification, and other thermal energy needs.

Building upon success stories in European countries like Norway, Finland, and Sweden, Vicinity is electrifying our district energy systems. Our approach is based on our ability to:

  • Leverage established technologies such as industrial-scale electric boilers and heat pumps to convert electricity into steam;
  • ​Capitalize on the flexibility of our existing assets that connect to the electric transmission system today​;
  • Take advantage of the future economics of renewable electricity to introduce green electrons to our fuel mix;
  • And utilize the agility of fuel-agnostic district energy to decarbonize, easily “flipping the switch” to greener fuels​.

By electrifying our central facilities, all our customers can access carbon-free eSteam™ to meet building performance standards and avoid costly building modifications.

Our team is actively working towards our goal of net zero. In November 2022, we kicked off our electrification plans by deconstructing a steam turbine at our Kendall facility. We are installing an electric boiler in its place, which will enter service in 2024.

In April 2023, we took another crucial step in our clean energy future plans by announcing our partnership with MAN Energy Solutions to develop low-temperature source heat pump systems for steam generation. Currently, we are designing the heat pump complex, which will occupy a space of approximately 25,000 sq. ft. and will circulate through 24.5 million to 49 million gallons of water from the Charles River each day, returning the water to the river at a lower temperature and ensuring that the river and its ecosystems remain unharmed.

Meeting BERDO 2.0 requirements with eSteam™

eSteam™ is carbon-free and recognized in the BERDO 2.0 regulations. This thermal product offers a straightforward solution for commercial landlords and developers trying to meet the ordinance’s carbon-reduction goals.

Vicinity’s eSteam™ is recognized as emissions-free by BERDO 2.0 regulations, providing customers with a compliant and cost-effective solution.

The Vicinity team assists customers in Boston with BERDO 2.0 reporting energy usage through Energy Star Portfolio Manager, one of the three reporting requirements set by BERDO 2.0.

Our team sends energy usage data and an annual energy summary to customers every month, making their reporting process more efficient and accurate.

Carbon reduction acts in Boston and beyond

While Boston is undoubtedly leading the country by reimagining the energy industry, many other cities around the U.S. are planning to enact ordinances similar to BERDO 2.0.

The City of Baltimore, for example, is currently in the implementation stages of the Climate Solutions Now Act, or SB 528. The act proposes a greenhouse gas reduction goal of 60% by 2031, with net zero carbon emissions by 2045.

Vicinity’s district energy systems are uniquely poised to help building owners and developers in Boston, Cambridge, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and more to meet building performance standards today and in the future.

 

Powering healthcare facilities with district energy

Hospital administrators have one key concern that drives all decision-making: how to provide the highest quality care to their patients cost-effectively and efficiently. In today’s challenging environment, hospital leadership is thinking of ways to reduce costs while maintaining high patient care and safety standards.

Unique energy demands require reliable, green solutions

It’s no secret that hospitals have unique energy needs. Given the critical care that hospitals and healthcare facilities provide, any disruption to energy delivery can have dire consequences.

In addition, hospitals serve patients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Their operations depend on energy for heating, cooling, and, importantly, sterilization to ensure patient safety. These demanding energy needs mean that healthcare facilities consume nearly 10% of the total energy used in U.S. commercial buildings and spend more than $8 billion annually.

Many leading U.S. cities also have aggressive climate action goals. Hospitals typically have an energy use intensity nearly three times that of the average commercial building, so sustainable energy has become a non-negotiable requirement for hospitals and medical facilities that provide cutting-edge care.

How Vicinity can help

Today, lighting, space heating, and water heating represent about 65% of hospital energy use. Hospitals and healthcare facilities must have a reliable energy partner that provides continuous energy delivery while keeping costs low and reducing carbon emissions.

Vicinity currently serves nearly 28 million square feet of healthcare facility space in the U.S. By connecting to Vicinity’s district energy systems, healthcare teams have access to reliable, sustainable, and clean energy and are supported by a team of experts to ensure their property is always running smoothly and efficiently. Our specialists include experienced licensed engineers, operators, and financial professionals.

In Baltimore, leading healthcare providers at Mercy Medical Center have relied on Vicinity’s district energy system to power their critical care since 1963. One of the top hospitals in Baltimore, Maryland, Mercy Medical Center is renowned for excellence in primary care and specialty care in women’s health, cancer, digestive health, liver disease, and more. While Vicinity provides chilled water and steam for the hospital’s daily operations, Mercy can focus on fostering a community of compassionate care for their patients.

Robert Beckwith, vice president of support services and construction at Mercy Medical Center, offered his perspective on the partnership: “The steam and chilled water services that Vicinity Energy provides are crucial to the operational efficiency of our hospital and support our mission to provide excellent and compassionate clinical care to all citizens of Baltimore.”

Additionally, Vicinity has partnered with Oklahoma State University (OSU) to provide chilled water and steam service to the future Tulsa Veterans Affairs Hospital, a 58-bed medical-surgical inpatient hospital for Veterans of Oklahoma encompassing 275,000 square feet of building space. District energy will support this public-private partnership success story and its mission of providing the highest level of care for Tulsa’s veteran population.

Vicinity’s long-term partnerships with healthcare institutions in Baltimore, Tulsa, and beyond enable healthcare teams to focus on providing quality clinical care to patients.

How district energy supports optimal patient care

By relying on our energy experts to manage energy infrastructure and ensure an uninterrupted supply of service, healthcare providers can focus on what matters most: advancing human health and saving lives.

  • Increased reliability and sustainability – District energy is safer and more sustainable than onsite chillers or boilers.
  • Maximized critical space – District energy service eliminates the need for in-building boilers, chillers, and cooling towers so that healthcare facilities can free up space for life-saving equipment. Hospitals connected to district systems can make smart, economical use of all the space that would otherwise be dedicated to large, costly equipment.
  • Optimized sterilization and humidification – The CDC recommends steam sanitation over conventional sanitation methods. Hospitals use our high-pressure steam for space humidification to support infection control and patient comfort. Our clean steam solutions provide proper air and comfort for healing, empowering hospital staff to provide patients with top-quality care.
  • Uninterrupted energy supply – Healthcare facilities with existing onsite energy plants require experienced O&M experts to ensure that they are operating correctly, and that energy is supplied at all times. Proper O&M of energy infrastructure is essential to ensuring that healthcare facilities have the energy to operate 24/7.

Get started with district energy today to decarbonize your healthcare facilities and access reliable, uninterrupted service.

Decarbonizing public infrastructure: How government buildings are leading the energy transition

Today, government agencies juggle competing priorities, balancing budget restraints, hiring needs, improving processes, and focusing on reducing carbon impact.

Municipal, state, and federal buildings have unique energy requirements. From courthouses and state houses to medical facilities and libraries, these buildings must serve the needs of the public while keeping employees comfortable and able to do their critical work.

Sustainable energy solutions for government buildings

Government buildings have a significant opportunity to decarbonize their operations. Around the world, building operations and materials are responsible for roughly 42% of annual carbon emissions.

Across the U.S., leading cities are taking action to reduce this substantial carbon footprint. Building performance standards are being enacted, requiring buildings to reduce carbon emissions. These requirements make low-carbon, sustainable energy a non-negotiable requirement for new and existing buildings, and government operations are no exception.

In 2023, the Federal government announced the first-ever Federal Building Performance Standard (BPS), which aims to cut energy use and electrify equipment and appliances in 30% of Federally owned building space by 2030.

Many federally owned buildings are partnering with district energy systems to meet these carbon requirements and appeal to eco-conscious employees. Federal buildings currently connected to district energy systems can instantly meet the requirements set by the new standard, and buildings connected in the future can also meet these requirements while benefitting from the efficient, sustainable, and reliable service district energy provides.

Supporting mission-critical work

Because district energy systems leverage centralized infrastructure to serve multiple buildings connected to one system, cities across the U.S. are turning to district energy to advance their clean energy goals and meet their reliability needs.

District energy systems are fuel agnostic, making them a powerful tool for building decarbonization. Vicinity is deploying innovative technologies and integrating renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro into our systems to decarbonize the buildings we serve by 2050 or sooner. With Vicinity, building owners and operators can rely on an uninterrupted energy supply while reducing their carbon impact.

By connecting to Vicinity’s district energy system, government buildings not only have access to reliable, sustainable energy but are also supported by a team of experts to ensure their operations run smoothly and efficiently. Our specialists include experienced licensed engineers, operators, and financial professionals who provide dedicated service.

Vicinity Energy serves over 40 million square feet of government building space nationwide, working as a trusted energy partner with federal and state operations, from libraries and city halls to federally-owned hospitals.

Benefits of district energy service

From reducing carbon emissions to improving resilience, district energy systems provide reliable service to government buildings so they can focus on the vital work that is shaping our country. With district energy, government buildings can free up additional space, reduce energy expenses, and meet emission reduction requirements.

Vicinity’s energy solutions for government buildings are reliable and sustainable. They help advance the innovations that propel our communities forward and protect the world.

  • Increased reliability and sustainability – District energy is a safer and more sustainable alternative to onsite chillers or boilers. Vicinity’s 99.99% reliable energy service allows government operations to focus on their critical work.
  • Reduced carbon footprint – As Vicinity electrifies our district energy systems, carbon-free energy helps buildings better align with government efforts to protect the health of local ecosystems and communities.
  • Transferred energy risk – Vicinity’s district energy systems have interconnected central facilities with multiple power supplies, fuel sources, and back-up generation to ensure continual service. In addition, connected buildings reduce energy risk by transferring operations and maintenance (O&M) responsibility to Vicinity’s energy experts.
  • Reduced operations and maintenance costs – Vicinity’s O&M services maximize your infrastructure investment by keeping building energy systems working at peak performance.

Get started with district energy today to decarbonize your buildings and access reliable, uninterrupted service.

Market update: natural gas outlook winter 2024

As we continue into the winter season, Vicinity’s team has been evaluating weather patterns and predictions for the natural gas market to prepare our customers for potential price fluctuations.

After peaking in December 2023, the El Niño pattern continues, and February 2024 weather forecasts indicate above-average temperatures in the Northeast and Midwest, induced cooling in the South, and higher precipitation in the Pacific, which experts predict may continue into the remainder of the winter season.

The natural gas markets have reset to similar levels as 2021, before the geopolitical events in 2022 drove prices above average.

By the numbers: what we know and what we can expect

Prior to January 2024’s well freeze-offs, the U.S. lower 48 saw strong natural gas production, primarily due to efficiencies in the Permian Basin of the U.S. that have provided ample supply to the market, mitigating demand risk. However, due to colder weather in the Permian basin in recent weeks, natural gas production has fallen.

Currently, natural gas storage levels are 4% above 2023 levels and 5% above the 5-year average. Europe’s storage facilities were 80% full through the first half of January 2024, slowing European demand for LNG and suppressing pricing.

Colder weather conditions in January 2024 have contributed to well freeze-offs in the Permian natural gas basin, impacting output and potentially providing more upside risk to pricing. However, the January 2024 futures contract settlement was less than levels at this time last year.

Key electrification progress

The adverse effects of natural gas far outweigh the benefits of continuing to invest in this unsustainable fuel source.

In 2023, the U.S. saw an estimated 1.9% decrease in carbon emissions, as measured in research done by the Rhodium Group. Throughout the year, emissions remained below pre-pandemic levels and dropped to 17.2% below 2005 levels.

While this decrease is substantial, an even greater emissions reduction is necessary to limit climate change. In 2023, Earth’s average land and ocean surface temperature was 2.12 degrees F above the 20th century, making it the highest global temperature among all years recorded since 1850, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The undeniable climate crisis drives Vicinity’s progress towards transitioning away from fossil fuels and eliminating carbon emissions from our operations. By electrifying our operations nationwide, we will be able to offer an affordable, carbon-free path for building owners to meet sustainability goals and join us in limiting climate change.

Our first electric boiler has been delivered to our Kendall facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it will enter service in 2024, immediately allowing our customers to harness carbon-free energy and decarbonize their buildings.

The industrial-scale heat pump complex we are developing in partnership with MAN Energy Solutions is undergoing engineering and will enter service in 2026. These milestones demonstrate our commitment and progress towards a net zero carbon future.