District Energy Is Charging Philly’s Ever-Growing Life Science Market
Life sciences are currently booming in the United States. An outpouring of new products and technology coupled with capital inflows from public and private investors are transforming the industry, allowing new implementations to take shape. As talent within the field continues to rise, new treatments for diseases such as cancer, HIV, and cystic fibrosis are finally within reach. There has also been a growing emphasis on the standard of care patients receive, demonstrated through the quality and performance management requirements gaining particular attention in life science professions. With this surge in technology, funding, talent, and performance, the demand for lab space across significant markets is stronger than ever.
A real estate shift is occurring
The COVID-19 pandemic ignited a shift in how traditional office spaces are used. Lockdowns proved that employees did not have to be in the office to complete projects and tasks, and productivity increased with remote tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams for collaboration. This new paradigm has diminished the need for office space in numerous industries.
The opposite is true for careers in medicine and biotechnology: the pandemic verified the crucial need for health care workers and researchers to have hands-on lab space for their life-saving findings and operations. The outcome of these two factors was a real estate scramble.
Because of this transition, city landlords are desperately converting their vacant office spaces into laboratories, making way for the world of life sciences to thrive.
How is this affecting Philadelphia?
In 2017, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia boosted Philly’s status in the medical industry by developing an FDA-approved treatment for a rare form of retinal blindness. That same year, the University of Pennsylvania’s CAR T cell therapy was approved by the FDA to treat a specific type of cancer found in children and young adults. This treatment has now won its third FDA approval in 2022.
Philadelphia has since maintained its glowing reputation as a hub for the life science market, as seen by the industry’s employment rate, which has grown by a staggering 116% since 2001. Medical and biotech organizations flock to Philadelphia not only for their growing pool of talent but also for their valuable real estate. Compared with other top life science markets such as Baltimore, San Francisco, and New York City, Philadelphia’s market displays significant cost advantages in building operations and maintenance.
These cost advantages can be attributed to Philly’s thriving district energy network, a crucial motivator for labs, hospitals, and other research and development establishments to expand into this region.
Meeting rigid requirements for laboratories
Laboratory operations require a lot more energy than those of a typical office building. In the U.S., labs can use anywhere from 30 to 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity and 75,000 to 800,000 Btu of natural gas per square foot every year. In a standard laboratory, most power is sourced for cooling, lighting, and space heating, with lighting and space heating accounting for approximately 74% of total energy use.
The ceilings of laboratories must also be appropriate for ductwork and equipment. There must be sufficient airflow for the safety of technicians as well as viable interior wall and ceiling space to meet upgraded mechanical and utility conditions. More importantly, laboratories require a large volume of high-quality, reliable thermal energy to support their fundamental operations. Specific ventilation, space temperature, and humidity measures are necessary to sterilize laboratory tools and equipment.
An error in any of these requirements can result in millions of dollars lost in research and development. This could cause a significant financial burden for biotech and pharmaceutical organizations as well as catastrophic setbacks in the advancement of medical discoveries.
Establishing lab space in Philly
As progressive climate action goals continue to develop throughout the U.S., low-carbon sustainable energy will soon become a non-negotiable requirement in cities like Philadelphia. Additionally, individual biotech companies typically have sustainability initiatives, making green energy increasingly vital to operations.
With the speed at which life science firms are growing and expanding, ground-up construction is not an option. Existing buildings must adapt to these requirements, which are becoming increasingly rigid, to meet rapidly approaching sustainability goals. District energy builds upon existing infrastructure, so buildings do not need to make expensive renovations to decarbonize their operations. This energy alternative has been proven to be both environmentally green and cost-effective.
Vicinity’s Philly district energy network
Vicinity Energy offers affordable green steam to Philadelphia’s renowned universities, medical research facilities, hospitals, and other commercial institutions. This steam network is one of the largest district energy systems in the U.S., covering over 100 million square feet of the city’s grounds.
Vicinity has already made multimillion-dollar investments to improve Philly’s critical energy infrastructure, enabling this district energy network to reduce carbon emissions by nearly 300,000 tons annually.
District energy is considerably more affordable than other onsite alternatives, such as building in hefty electric boilers, which are expensive to install and maintain, take up excess space, and detract from valuable real estate. Vicinity’s interconnected steam facilities provide built-in redundancy, backup generation, and multiple water and fuel sources to ensure these crucial life science organizations can stay up and running 24/7.
As Philly’s district energy network expands, hospitals and laboratories can devote more time, money, and physical space to their life-saving operations. District energy users also enjoy peace of mind knowing that their building supports renewable energy distribution as Vicinity strives towards a cleaner and greener future for Philadelphia.