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The Path to a Greener Future: Electrifying District Energy in Boston and Cambridge

Massachusetts is estimated to experience more and more 90+°F days each year, along with increased precipitation, flooding, and rising sea levels. This kind of drastic climate change threatens the health, safety and long-term well-being of our communities.

Recognizing that climate related impacts are directly tied to conventional fossil fuel use and rising greenhouse gas emissions, Massachusetts has bold plans in place to dramatically cut carbon. One of the Commonwealth’s biggest initiatives in its decarbonization roadmap is electrification – a move to leverage the electric grid’s growing adoption of more renewable sources (like offshore wind and solar) to power, heat and cool commercial buildings.

Electrification: The Key to Achieving Massachusetts’ Carbon Reduction Goals

As part of its Clean Energy and Climate Plan (CECP), the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a goal to decarbonize and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of its 1990 baseline by 2030 and reach net carbon zero by 2050. Electrification has been identified as the key tactic to meet this goal, and Boston aims to electrify 300-400 million square feet of commercial space.

However, substituting combustion-fueled technologies (like on site gas boilers and chillers) for electric technologies in commercial buildings is an expensive and time-consuming endeavor. So how can the Commonwealth’s goals be achieved quickly without incurring huge financial burdens on individual building owners? Thankfully, Massachusetts has a tool in its carbon-cutting toolbox: district energy.

District Energy: A Carbon-Cutting Tool Right Under Our Feet

Beneath the streets of both Boston and Cambridge, a robust network of pipes is delivering clean steam to over 230 commercial buildings, totaling 65 million square feet of building space – the equivalent of 54 Prudential Towers. Owned and operated by Vicinity Energy, the Boston/Cambridge district energy system generates and distributes clean, low-carbon steam used for heating, cooling, hot water, humidification and sterilization to some of the area’s premier hospitals, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, universities, hotels and entertainment venues, commercial space, and government facilities.

Through its Kendall Square cogeneration facility – the largest combined heat and power (CHP) plant in the New England area – Vicinity’s operations are already avoiding over 165,000 tons of CO 2 emissions annually – the equivalent of removing 35,000 cars from the roads each year. While this is certainly a big contribution, the company wants to do even more to reduce its carbon footprint. In line with the Commonwealth’s goal, Vicinity has a commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions across its operations by 2050.

Vicinity recently integrated biogenic fuel into its fuel mix and is also exploring and testing large-scale use of batteries, hydrogen, and other low-carbon options which will have an immediate effect on the carbon footprint of the businesses we serve. Vicinity has also invested over $110 million in a series of green steam projects to improve efficiencies and further reduce environmental impacts in the Boston and Cambridge area.

While Vicinity’s district energy system is already highly efficient, the company is uniquely positioned to make an even greater positive impact on Massachusetts’ carbon goals. The solution is simple: install large-scale electric boilers and consume renewable energy from the grid as it becomes more readily available. Doing this will benefit each and every building connected to the district energy loop at a fraction of the cost to building owners. Representing 20% of the cities’ total electrification target, thermal electrification of the district system is the solution for rapid and cost-effective building decarbonization. By electrifying our systems, we can – in one swoop – bring Boston and Cambridge much closer to their goal.

The Next Energy Inflection Point

“The time to act on electrification is now… A new customer is added to the U.S. gas distribution system every minute – more than 400,000 new gas customers per year. U.S. utilities are adding approximately 10,000 miles of new pipelines and replacing 5,600 miles of existing gas mains annually. These new investments are being amortized over the next 30-80 years, long after we need to stop burning fossil fuels.” –Stephanie Greene, Principal, Building Electrification at Rocky Mountain Institute

The biggest opportunity to green and decarbonize buildings in Boston and Cambridge is to electrify the district energy system. Since the inception of district energy in the late 1800s, district energy systems have routinely migrated to cleaner, more efficient fuel sources. Now we’re at another inflection point and district energy is uniquely positioned to lead through this next energy transition to clean, renewable fuels.

The use of electric boilers and heat pumps in district energy systems is a proven solution. Today, the Stockholm district energy system in Sweden, for instance, uses 660 MW of heat pumps and 300 MW of electric boilers to generate steam, which is distributed throughout the city. It is estimated that altogether, Stockholm’s district energy system has reduced sulfur oxide and particulate emissions by two-thirds since 1986. Vicinity is the first district energy company in the US to put forth a similar plan and intends to convert its existing natural gas infrastructure to electric at its central Kendall cogeneration facility. Sitting next to a major electric substation, Vicinity can import renewable electrons and instantly decarbonize its steam. It’s the “easy switch” for electrification.

Vicinity currently plans to install 100-150 MW of electric boiler capacity by 2028 at Kendall, which can serve up to 75% of its current steam production requirements, or 45 million square feet of building space in Boston and Cambridge. Vicinity’s electrification plan is multi-pronged and will include:

  • Using existing waste energy from heat or river water in order to electrify 10% of its steam load, which is equivalent to 6 million square feet;
  • Installing large-scale electric boilers at the Kendall facility that will convert electricity to steam; and
  • Constructing an additional pipe crossing under the Charles River to connect Boston’s peak winter heating demand with steam generated at the electrified Kendall facility.

This plan will not only support both cities’ goals, it will also eliminate the challenge of property owners needing to retrofit individual buildings. Vicinity’s existing network of 65 million square feet of buildings will automatically benefit from this “easy switch” – saving businesses significant capital and allowing them to instead invest in efficiency and growth.

Looking to the Future

Vicinity’s goal, in alignment with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is to decarbonize. Electrifying the district energy system is the fastest and most cost-effective way to help achieve this shared goal. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Through advances in policy and leveraging the unique assets we already have, the Commonwealth is poised to lead the charge in our Nation’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.