What is district energy?

How district energy is helping commercial buildings and local communities

District energy uses local resources to tackle broad, global energy and environmental challenges. But what is it, exactly?

District energy uses a centrally located facility, or facilities, to generate thermal energy – heat, hot water or chilled water – for a number of nearby buildings that in effect form an “energy district.” These resources are transported through underground pipes to meet the needs of communities, cities, or campuses – such as colleges, hospitals, airports, or office parks. This provides multiple advantages:

  • Freedom from asset ownership and maintenance, including the costs associated with this
  • Energy pricing stability and cost effectiveness
  • More efficient energy delivery
  • Greater reliability and redundancy in energy supply
  • Reduced carbon footprint

The International District Energy Association created this great short video that provides a solid introduction to how and why district energy works so well:

Although district energy has an impressive history (did you know it was originally used to heat the baths of Ancient Rome?), it’s also a constantly evolving technology that uses innovative techniques, fuel sources and infrastructure to provide more efficient, resilient, and environmentally responsible energy than conventional generation sources. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, district energy systems “typically reduce primary energy demand in heating and cooling by 50%,” and can achieve operational efficiency of up to 90%.

District energy is cost-effective

So, is district heating better than onsite energy generation?

There’s a common misconception that onsite energy generation is cheaper than connecting to a district energy network. This faulty conclusion usually arises when the start-up costs of generating energy onsite and the ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) expenses associated with onsite infrastructure are not considered.

Because district energy customers receive a finished thermal product, they don’t need to pay the millions in upfront capital costs for installation of chillers and/or boilers or the ongoing costs to maintain their own equipment. Onsite heating and cooling infrastructure can represent one of the largest startup costs for a new building and are repeat offenders when it comes to breakdowns that require pricey repairs. It’s important to conduct a lifecycle economic comparison between district energy and onsite generation when comparing the two.

By evaluating variable energy costs, recurring fixed operating costs and upfront capital costs, oftentimes, district energy is the optimal economic solution.

District energy also takes up much less space in a building than onsite generation would. On average, district energy connection infrastructure requires about the same amount of space as a parking spot, which means buildings can make smart, economic use of all the space they would have needed to dedicate to boilers, water towers, cooling systems, thermal storage, and more.

District energy is reliable

One thing that makes it so reliable is that district energy systems have built-in redundancy within its central plants and networks, meaning they can leverage multiple generating assets and fuel, power and water sources. If a piece of equipment or utility source is compromised or experiencing any issues, the system can continue to operate by drawing from its back-up sources and infrastructure. Compare that to what happens to a building’s operations if an issue occurs with an onsite boiler – no heat or hot water until it’s fixed. In fact, a building’s district energy service could eliminate the need for onsite N+1 redundancy.

As global climate and weather conditions become more extreme, the ability to ensure reliable energy even during severe conditions is a growing concern. Because many district energy grids can black-start (meaning they can restart without the aid of external electrical transmission) and can use a range of fuel sources, such systems can maintain a high level of energy uptime even during extreme weather events.

District energy is more reliable in terms of its components and delivery too. With insulated carbon steel conduit piping encased in concrete, a district energy network’s distribution system is more robust and resilient than conventional utility alternatives.

District energy is sustainable

With climate change in full force, every decision we make plays a critical role in healing the planet and minimizing our negative impact on the environment.

Energy production is responsible for a substantial portion of the greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat within the earth’s atmosphere. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas stand out as the most predominant culprits for climate change, as they are responsible for over 75 percent of global greenhouse emissions and 90 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. These numbers paint an urgent picture: everyone must play their part in cutting emissions in half by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Despite these concerns, a clean energy future is well within reach. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that around 90 percent of all decarbonization solutions in 2050 will involve harnessing green energy from renewable sources to improve energy efficiency and supply innovative electrification technologies.

By centralizing and aggregating the production of heat, hot and chilled water to multiple buildings, district energy cuts down on the amount of fuel that would be required by individual buildings using onsite generation, and the resulting carbon emissions. Furthermore, it allows for faster, more complete transitions to clean energy sources as they become available: district energy systems can employ renewable energy sources, like biofuels, wind, solar, and hydro, to produce carbon-free steam and maximize energy efficiency.

District systems and infrastructure can easily be updated to integrate new technologies and/or renewable fuels that benefit a great number of buildings in a geographic footprint. This allows for carbon footprint reductions at a scale that would be impossible to achieve on an individual basis.

As an example, Vicinity Energy delivers thermal energy to over 100 million square feet of space throughout Philadelphia. As the central plant in the district adopts cleaner, green energy approaches, the ripple effect is massive! For example, combined heat and power (CHP) is one technology that Vicinity has employed in several of its districts, including Philadelphia, to provide sustainable, efficient thermal energy to its customers.

Vicinity has also implemented the use of biogenic fuels in our operations. Otherwise wasted vegetable oil from restaurants is then collected and can be burned in our district energy systems as-is, resulting in huge energy and carbon savings. Other technologies include waste-to-energy, geothermal, and other sustainable distributed energy resources.

Check out what Vicinity Energy CEO Bill DiCroce had to say about biofuels and the next steps required to put them into action across district energy grids:

Bringing it all together, locally and globally

This shift to more efficient renewable fuels and the impacts that only district energy can achieve at such a large scale has brought considerable carbon reductions here in the US and the world over. For example, the city of Anshan in China is projected to reduce its use of coal, a heavy pollutant, by 1.2 million tons each year by combining separate networks into a district, and simultaneously capturing 1 gigawatt of heat wasted by a city steel plant.

Another example is Paris, which has utilized district energy for years to combat air pollution. Today, 50 percent of Paris’s social housing, all of its hospitals, and 50 percent of its public buildings are supplied by district energy. That’s the heat-demand equivalent of 500,000 households! Or look at London, which has a number of district heating projects underway, including the Lee Valley Heat Network, which will provide heat and hot water to over 5,000 homes by capturing waste heat from a nearby EcoPark.

Whether for reasons of price, reliability, efficiency, or to create more sustainable infrastructure for future generations, communities across America and the world are looking locally, joining together, and making a change for the better with district energy.

White paper: Revolutionizing urban sustainability

We’re amid an energy transformation driven by a mounting global crisis: climate change. Across the world, we are experiencing more extreme weather events due to accelerating levels of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigating carbon in the production and distribution of energy is now just as critically important as our society’s ever-growing need for energy itself. It’s clear that we need resilient, reliable and agile energy solutions…now. 

District energy systems, like Vicinity’s, are uniquely positioned to take advantage of existing infrastructure in conjunction with critical technological advancements to cost-effectively decarbonize quickly. This white paper highlights the benefits of district energy in a decarbonizing world, specifically how electrifying district energy can help urban centers rapidly and affordably achieve city and state carbon reduction goals.

Learn more about how the electrification of district energy systems can help U.S. cities achieve building decarbonization.

Mayor Wu Kicks off Vicinity Energy’s Electrification Plans

Cambridge, November 17, 2022 – Vicinity Energy, a decarbonization leader with the nation’s largest portfolio of district energy systems, serving over 70 million square feet of building space across Boston and Cambridge, has officially kicked off its electrification plans with the deconstruction of a steam turbine at the Kendall Green Energy Cogeneration Facility. Vicinity will install an electric boiler in its place, marking a critical step in the company’s Clean Energy Future commitment to reaching net zero carbon emissions across all its operations by 2050.

Boston’s Mayor Michelle Wu commemorated the day at Vicinity’s Kendall facility. Marking a crucial step toward a clean energy future for Boston and Cambridge, the deconstruction aligns with the Mayor’s latest move to file a home rule petition to ban the use of fossil fuels for new buildings in Boston.

“It is remarkable to be able to say that Vicinity is the first energy company in the country to electrify its operations. That is a huge deal and one that will have ramifications for generations to come. For every gigantic natural gas boiler that’s going to be decommissioned, for every new building that will use eSteam™, those are jobs created right here for our residents and our communities,” said Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. “It is clear that the work of ensuring our planet remains livable is going to require all of us: every level of government, business, and community. We’re very grateful that Vicinity’s carbon-free eSteam™ product will power the leading industries we’re already known for here in Greater Boston such as life sciences, healthcare, commercial real estate, and many more.”

“With the installation of this electric boiler, we are enabling a seamless conversion to carbon-free eSteam™ for our customers, including innovative commercial building owners and developers like IQHQ,” said Bill DiCroce, president and chief executive officer of Vicinity Energy. “This is game-changing for our communities and a prime example of what happens when government, the business community, and the energy sector work together and embrace the region’s Green New Deal.”

The electric boiler will enter service in 2024. At that time, the company will procure electricity from renewable, carbon-free energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro to generate eSteam™, the first-ever carbon-free renewable energy product. IQHQ will be Vicinity’s first customer to power the rapid decarbonization of its buildings in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood: 109 Brookline and Fenway Center Phase 2 with carbon-free eSteam™.

“Today, we are excited to be celebrating the installation of the electric boiler,” said Jenny Whitson, director of sustainability & ESG at IQHQ. “By Vicinity taking this step to offer developers like us the opportunity to source electric steam generated by renewable energy, we are able to achieve our climate goals and carbon emission reduction targets for our projects.”

Over the years, Vicinity has evolved as new, cleaner fuel sources have become commercially available. The company’s predecessors burned coal to generate steam before migrating to oil, natural gas, and combined heat and power (CHP). Because district energy systems are agnostic to fuel type, they can quickly implement these new, more sustainable technologies and fuel sources. Electrification is the next crucial step to decarbonize Boston and Cambridge at scale and ensure both municipalities meet their new energy standards and emission mandates.

The Kendall Green Energy Cogeneration Facility simultaneously produces thermal energy and electricity in one efficient process to serve approximately 75% of Vicinity’s customers throughout the region. When the electric boilers begin service, all of these facilities will have access to carbon-free, renewable energy at once.

“Here in Kendall Square, a place known for global innovation, we are proud of Vicinity’s contribution to urban decarbonization with eSteam,” said Beth O’Neill Maloney, executive director at the Kendall Square Association. “Vicinity’s electrification plans will help contribute to the decarbonization of Cambridge and Boston without building-level changes. Vicinity is a global sustainability leader, charting a new path forward for district energy.”

Vicinity is on track to fully electrify its steam generation in Boston and Cambridge and introduce other technological advancements into its operations, including industrial-scale heat pumps and molten salt thermal energy storage. The company’s other locations across the country will undergo similar electrification processes in the coming years.

Click here to read more about eSteam™, district energy systems, and Vicinity’s commitment to innovation and the environment.

About Vicinity Energy

Vicinity Energy is a clean energy company that owns and operates an extensive portfolio of district energy systems across the United States. Vicinity produces and distributes reliable, clean steam, hot water, and chilled water to over 230 million square feet of building space nationwide. Vicinity continuously invests in its infrastructure and the latest technologies to accelerate the decarbonization of commercial and institutional buildings in city centers. Vicinity is committed to achieving net zero carbon across its portfolio by 2050. To learn more, visit https://www.vicinityenergy.us or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Media Contact

Vicinity Energy
Sara DeMille
Marketing and Communications

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.

Needle inserted into covid 19 vaccine vial

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.

Surgical tools being set on a sterilized table

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 system

Vicinity Energy offers affordable green steam to Philadelphia’s renowned universities, medical research facilities, hospitals, and other commercial institutions. This steam system 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.

The result

As Philly’s district energy system 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.

The $369 billion gamechanger for clean energy

In the same week as a record-breaking Mega Millions jackpot, the US Senate reached a groundbreaking $369 billion climate agreement, days after it appeared a deal was all but dead, The Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to pass the House later this week, is a milestone victory for the green sector, making a record-shattering investment into emissions-free energy production. It promises to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent nationwide and massively overhaul how Americans get their electricity, heating, and cooling. Although it’s not the multi-trillion-dollar climate plan that President Joe Biden originally envisioned, $369 billion on a bad day isn’t bad.

As anticipated, if passed by both chambers, the Inflation Reduction Act will, as the name suggests, reduce inflation and produce tangible gains for a US economy in desperate need of a boost. Critically, it will also reset the climate change agenda and help to make decarbonization a household issue for a generation of Americans.

You can call it watered down if you’d like. Still, the Inflation Reduction Act is a major political win for both pragmatism and popular opinion, as David Wallace-Wells wrote in the New York Times: “This bill is a compromise, obviously and outwardly. It is also a historic achievement for the climate left and a tribute to its moral fervor and political realism.”

For companies like Vicinity Energy, these historic investments in renewable energy are in lockstep with the decarbonization investments we are already making in the cities served by our district energy systems. Vicinity’s agile, fuel-agnostic systems can easily switch to carbon-free energy sources and lower carbon emissions by converting renewable power into steam. Customers on the system receive a thermal energy product without emitting CO2, making district energy a game changer for the climate and our communities.

So, where is the $369 billion going? The Inflation Reduction Act incentivizes developers to build new emissions-free electricity sources, such as geothermal heating, wind turbines, and solar panels, by offering billions of dollars in tax credits over ten years. The deal struck by Congress also provides substantial incentives to low- and middle-income households to transition to electric heat, fueled by renewables, in their homes. Overall, the legislation stands to rapidly speed up the country’s transition away from fossil fuels and bring the United States closer to the emissions targets set in the Paris Climate Accord.

Among the policies and investments being made with the single-largest investment into the green sector in history are:

  • $4.28 billion – dedicated to creating a High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program that will provide $8,000 for homeowners to install heat pumps, among other rebates.
  • $60 billion – providing incentives to ramp up domestic manufacturing for clean energy products like solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries.
  • $60 billion – targeting a series of environmental justice programs, such as community block grants for neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by the public health harms of pollution and climate change.
  • New federal penalties for companies that produce methane leakage
  • An end to the Trump-era moratorium on offshore wind in the Gulf

You can read the full text of the bill here.

Reimagining the energy industry: an inflection point for decarbonization efforts

As a coastal city, Boston is particularly vulnerable to the negative and real impact of climate change. Over the next several decades, according to a new report from the University of Massachusetts Boston, this region will almost certainly see hotter days, increasingly intense storms, and rising sea levels. Current guidance coming out of local and state government – such as Boston’s updated Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO 2.0), which sets requirements for large buildings to reduce their energy and water use data, stretch codes which are mandated so buildings will achieve higher energy savings, and growing investments in green and renewable energy technologies – are prescriptive policies that will help lower greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully slow climate change’s tide.

Still, with the recent Supreme Court decision curtailing the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, achieving a 50 percent drop in emissions by 2030 or a net zero future with the remaining tools from a federal regulation standpoint will be increasingly challenging. This ruling affirms the local business community’s role in achieving net zero, particularly in Greater Boston. In a way, it is an opportunity for creative solutions to drive what needs to be done.

Coming from the government world, I am excited to be part of the solution. And with 2022 now at its midpoint – an inflection point regarding how environmental progress will be achieved locally and nationally, I thought I would share an update on the state of play from our perspective.

Recently there’s been momentum in the environmental world regarding the usage of old technology with an innovative, fresh lens. For instance, cargo bikes are an efficient and environmentally friendly method for making last-mile deliveries. A study last year by Possible, a British advocacy group, found that electric cargo bikes cut carbon emissions by 90% compared with traditional diesel vans and by a third compared with electric vans, according to the report. Air pollution was also significantly reduced. The bikes also delivered approximately 60% faster than vans in urban centers, had a higher average speed, and dropped off ten items an hour, compared with six items for vans. Meanwhile, unlike plastic, glass bottles are a fully sustainable and recyclable resource that also provides fantastic environmental benefits like a longer life cycle and lower carbon footprint. It is also made of natural raw materials and has an enhanced ability to preserve food.

This is precisely what we are doing at Vicinity. In April, we announced the launch of eSteam™, an innovation designed to rapidly decarbonize the highest source of emissions in major cities and commercial buildings. Our company is the first in the U.S. to electrify our operations, offering renewable thermal energy by installing electric boilers, industrial-scale heat pumps, and thermal storage at our central facilities starting in Boston and Cambridge, with other locations to follow.

In cities like Boston and Cambridge, buildings account for nearly 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Think about how changing the fuel source can have a profound impact, whether on coal, oil, natural gas, or combined heat and power (CHP) plants. Now is the time to transition from natural gas to renewable, clean energy. That is precisely what this new electrified system will be able to accomplish: modernizing how district energy is approached.

If we are serious about decarbonization, we must be bold and reimagine our industry. That’s what is being done at Vicinity Energy, and we are looking to best practices from similar steam loops in other parts of the world. Copenhagen, Malmö, and Drammen use district energy to meet and surpass their respective climate goals. Our goal is to be the first in the U.S. to lead in this space. Vicinity is uniquely poised to serve as a national leader in building decarbonization. The time for action is now. Our customers want it, our cities ask for it, and our planet demands it.

We are proud of what we are accomplishing.

Vicinity Energy Keeps Baltimore Aquatic Life Cool With Clean Chilled Water Agreement

BALTIMORE, November 3, 2021Vicinity Energy, owner and operator of the nation’s largest portfolio of district energy systems, announces that it has extended its contract with the National Aquarium for an additional 20 years.

The historic National Aquarium in Baltimore is home to hundreds of different species of plants and animals, all of which require specific air and water temperatures. To support its cooling needs, the Aquarium recently extended a 20-year contract with Vicinity Energy for chilled water services, used in space cooling and to regulate temperatures in its exhibits. Since 2001, Vicinity Energy has been providing 1,250 tons of district chilled water to the National Aquarium, which hosts 1.2 million people each year. Vicinity is also a proud annual contributor to the Aquarium, supporting the institution’s efforts to educate visitors and help protect Chesapeake Bay aquatic habitats.

The Aquarium, and all of Vicinity’s Baltimore customers, will now benefit from a greener district energy system than ever before. This summer, Vicinity completed a major energy efficiency project, involving equipment and controls improvements, that is expected to reduce Vicinity’s overall electricity consumption by over 17%. This upgrade is also expected to increase system reliability and redundancy.

Vicinity Energy centrally produces and distributes steam, hot water and chilled water to over 30 million square feet of building space in Baltimore. More than half of the steam delivered to Baltimore customers is generated through zero carbon, non-fossil fuel-based renewables, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions reductions of 30,000 tons annually, or the equivalent of removing about 11,000 cars from Baltimore’s roads. The company also recently announced the purchase of 100% carbon-free electricity to run its Baltimore heating and cooling operations, which will eliminate up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from cooling operations and 90% of emissions from heating operations.

This announcement comes on the heels of several other recent moves by Vicinity Energy to green its district energy systems, including the incorporation of renewable biogenic heating oil, as it continues on its path to net zero carbon emissions.

About Vicinity Energy

Vicinity Energy is a clean energy company that owns and operates an extensive portfolio of district energy systems across the United States. Vicinity produces and distributes reliable, clean steam, hot water, and chilled water to over 250 million square feet of building space nationwide. Vicinity continuously invests in its infrastructure and the latest technologies to accelerate the decarbonization of commercial and institutional buildings in city centers. Vicinity is committed to achieving net zero carbon across its portfolio by 2050. To learn more, visit https://www.vicinityenergy.us or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Media Contact

Vicinity Energy
Sara DeMille
Marketing and Communications

Vicinity Energy Secures 20-Year Contract to Expand District Energy Service to Kansas City’s Hotel Phillips

KANSAS CITY, September 8, 2021 – Vicinity Energy, owner and operator of the nation’s largest portfolio of district energy systems, has secured a new 20-year contract with Kansas City’s Hotel Phillips. Vicinity Energy will now expand its existing steam service to Hotel Phillips to also include chilled water used for cooling.

Once the tallest building in Kansas City, the 1930’s Art Deco-style hotel has opted to swap out its onsite chillers (comprising 190 tons of annual self-generated cooling) with piped-in chilled water service from Vicinity’s robust district chilled water network. Chilled water service became a viable option for Hotel Phillips due to a major chilled water expansion project completed in 2016, which expanded Vicinity’s service to the west side of Kansas City’s downtown. Benefits of this transition for the hotel include forgoing the imminent major capital cost of replacing its aging cooling tower, improved operational efficiency and reliability, and eliminating the need to house, operate and maintain (O&M) large onsite chilling equipment. This switch will substantially reduce upfront capital expenses, associated O&M costs and free up space that can now be used for the hotel’s core operations. Additionally, switching to Vicinity’s district chilled water will yield a sizable reduction in the hotel’s water and energy consumption, as well as an estimated 50% cut in carbon emissions, resulting in a net environmental benefit to the city.

Vicinity Energy has invested significant capital in an expansion on 12th Street to connect Hotel Phillips to the current chilled water line that runs down Wyandotte Street. Construction on this expansion began in June 2021 and was completed in August 2021. Construction also includes street repairs, landscaping and beautification, for the benefit of the entire community.

“Vicinity is proud to expand our relationship with the Hotel Phillips to provide clean, reliable, efficient chilled water service to this renowned and historic Kansas City landmark,” said Jaclyn Bliss, chief revenue officer of Vicinity Energy. “Having served the Hotel Phillips with steam for over two decades, this is a natural marriage; Vicinity can help the hotel keep guests cool and comfortable, while also saving the hotel time, money and space that they can now dedicate to providing the unique, superior guest experience that they’re known for.”

“We’re excited to grow our energy partnership with Vicinity Energy,” said Hotel Phillips General Manager John Glenn of Arbor Lodging Partners LLC. “We’ve been very happy with our longstanding steam service from Vicinity, and look forward to the additional efficiency, reliability and peace of mind we can expect from their chilled water service. Keeping our guests comfortable is our number one priority and we’re also so proud to be reducing our carbon footprint in the process.”

Vicinity Energy provides district steam and hot and chilled water services to over 4 million square feet of space in Kansas City. Due to its superior and efficient central cogeneration operations, Vicinity reduces the region’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by 33,000 tons annually, the equivalent of removing 7,100 cars off Kansas City roads each year. To learn more about how Vicinity is further greening its operations, check out Vicinity’s Clean Energy Future plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

About Vicinity Energy

Vicinity Energy is a clean energy company that owns and operates an extensive portfolio of district energy systems across the United States. Vicinity produces and distributes reliable, clean steam, hot water, and chilled water to over 250 million square feet of building space nationwide. Vicinity continuously invests in its infrastructure and the latest technologies to accelerate the decarbonization of commercial and institutional buildings in city centers. Vicinity is committed to achieving net zero carbon across its portfolio by 2050. To learn more, visit https://www.vicinityenergy.us or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

Media Contact

Vicinity Energy
Sara DeMille
Marketing and Communications

How district energy is supporting the transition from empty offices to thriving laboratories

Office space may be cooling down, but lab space is heating up

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a seismic impact on professional office work environments. Before the pandemic, most workplaces were strictly in-office, but now, the majority have shifted to work from home or a hybrid formula. This transition seems to be sticking, which means many office buildings in urban centers are now standing empty.

One type of work that cannot shift to a ‘work from home’ or hybrid model is laboratory research. Lab technicians require specific equipment and ideal environments that are only available in a physical lab. While the demand for office space has plummeted, the need for lab space is higher than ever. As a result, building owners and developers are converting empty offices into labs at an accelerating rate.

Lab space conversions are increasingly popular in areas experiencing notable life science booms, like Boston, Cambridge, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and San Diego. From 2009 to the end of 2019, the amount of lab space in the U.S. grew from 17 million to 29 million square feet. Even smaller cities like New Haven are “desperate” for more lab space because of a huge influx of life science enterprises on the scene. Boston is expected to complete construction for 2 to 3 million sq. ft. of new lab space by 2024. Lab space vacancy in Boston is currently at a mere 4.5%, versus overall office space vacancy, which is as high as 23%. Rents for lab space in the Boston area price at over $100 per sq. ft., making conversions extremely profitable. Furthermore, lab leases are generally 10 to 15 years long, giving landlords assurance that the conversion investments are worth it.

Lab space has several unique requirements for building owners to consider

Labs require a whole host of structural and service considerations. Efficient, effective laboratories require appropriate ceiling heights for duct work and equipment, enhanced airflow for the safety of technicians, and viable interior wall and ceiling space for increased mechanical and utility requirements. Developers must also keep in mind that different building codes and zoning requirements may apply, as compared to general office space. 

Perhaps most importantly, labs require high-quality and high-volume reliable 24/7 energy to provide power, cooling, heating, humidification and sterilization to ensure uninterrupted research, sanitized laboratory equipment and tools, and preservation of delicate procedures.

Evaluating your energy options

District energy

District energy is a great option to meet the unique requirements of lab space. Life science companies need huge volumes of high-quality, reliable thermal energy to support their critical operations, including specific ventilation, space temperature, humidity requirements, and the sterilization of laboratory tools and equipment. District steam energy has many advantages:
Without the burden of onsite combustion or maintaining chillers or boilers, district energy is a safer option than onsite infrastructure and also requires way less maintenance expense.

  • For sterilization and humidification, the CDC recommends steam sanitation over conventional sanitation methods.
  • District energy is more resilient and reliable even in the face of climate events.
  • District energy allows upper limits of heating to be adjusted, necessary for the specific conditions labs require.
  • A building can connect just a few floors to district energy if they only want to convert some floors to lab space.
  • District energy is a greener option and in cities where life sciences are booming, these same cities often have aggressive carbon emissions savings targets.
  • This energy solution also frees up valuable floor space, which allows life science companies to focus and leverage valuable square feet for their core operations.

Microgrids and distributed generation

A microgrid is an energy grid that typically provides power and thermal energy to a campus or group of buildings in close proximity to each other. In some cases, it makes sense for a research campus to develop an onsite independent energy solution to meet their critical energy needs. Microgrids can even store energy and use renewables. An independent energy developer with finance, engineering and construction management expertise can develop a custom distributed energy solution, from planning to implementation.

Alternatively, microgrids can also be integrated into district systems to provide even more energy resilience and reliability. Labs have extremely high thermal energy and power needs, making a microgrid solution (which provides both) a feasible and practical solution. Vicinity has developed and operates microgrids for multiple clients – including for a global biotechnology company.

Onsite boilers/chillers

Pairing onsite boilers and chillers for thermal energy and engaging a traditional power utility for electricity is often the first option that occurs to many commercial companies and building owners. However, most underestimate the cost and maintenance that goes along with such a decision or the risks to reliability. Onsite chillers and boilers require substantial upfront capital and ongoing maintenance costs. They take up valuable space in the building that easily could be used for core operations instead. Buildings with boilers also run the risk of insufficient steam pressure and poor steam quality. Labs require constant airflow in order to maintain a sterile environment – they need approximately five times more air changes than typical office buildings, which is why they tend to put more strain on the HVAC equipment to heat and cool all the fresh air being brought in. More air changes and ventilation requirements puts enormous pressure on boilers, especially in the winter, as it decreases the life of boilers, increases fuel costs, and means more repairs and maintenance. Not only does district energy or high-pressure steam from a microgrid provide humidification control, hot water, and heat, but it also allows for the sterilization of equipment. More sustainable energy solutions, like district energy and microgrids, often cost less from a lifecycle perspective and are more valuable in the long run.

Looking ahead

As office spaces turn into labs, an important component that life science companies must keep in mind are the carbon goals of the cities they operate in. Many cities have aggressive carbon reduction goals which must be taken into account when planning new commercial and industrial spaces.

Furthermore, many life sciences companies have goals for greening their own operations, sometimes above and beyond city and/or state guidelines. To attract life science companies and stay current with environmental policies, buildings must not only provide a reliable and cost-effective energy solution, but also one that can adapt to changing, and increasingly more stringent, sustainability requirements. This is a tricky matter when it comes to onsite energy generation, as any equipment would likely have to be expensively retrofitted in the future to meet greening initiatives. District energy, on the other hand, can rapidly green its operations with updates to its central plants, with all customers connected to the district system subsequently receiving cleaner energy. Incorporating district energy into any laboratory or office to lab conversion plan ensures not only that new life science tenants will have the HVAC, environmental and space conditions and capacities they need, but also that the building will continue to get greener over time – keeping up with corporate and government sustainability objectives well into the future.

Vicinity Energy Implements Renewable Biogenic Heating Oil, Transforming Food Waste into Energy and Creating Jobs

PHILADELPHIA, April 13, 2021 – Vicinity Energy, owner of the nation’s largest portfolio of district energy systems, announces it has signed a long-term fuel supply agreement with Lifecycle Renewables, a Boston-based firm that produces LR100™, a unique biogenic fuel derived from waste vegetable oil and fats discarded by the food service industry. The partnership will provide Vicinity with expanded access to this clean, renewable fuel to replace conventional fossil fuel oil in its district energy facilities, a milestone in the company’s roadmap to reach net zero carbon by 2050. The partnership also enables the immediate expansion of Lifecycle’s operations in Philadelphia, creating local jobs and supporting economic growth.

Vicinity Energy centrally produces and distributes steam, hot water and chilled water to over 230 million square feet (nearly eight square miles) of building space nationwide. Now, in partnership with Lifecycle Renewables, Vicinity will begin to integrate LR100™ across each of its facilities over time. Permits have already been acquired and the biogenic fuel tested in Philadelphia, with implementation in Boston on the immediate horizon and other districts to follow. A truly circular solution, the wastes discarded by the local food service industry will now be used to heat and cool businesses and institutions in the same city.

The benefits of transitioning to LR100™ include:

  • Significantly reducing Vicinity’s distillate fuel use, cutting carbon emissions by 12,200 tons, or the equivalent of removing 2,650 cars from Philadelphia’s roads each year
  • Recycling 600,000 gallons of food service industry waste oil (the average person consumes approximately 1.5 gallons of oil a year) into energy, that would otherwise be discarded in landfills or city sewers
  • Expanding Lifecycle Renewables’ operations in Philadelphia, resulting in job creation, recycling programs and cost savings for local restaurants, and sustainability benefits for the community
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by over 80% versus distillate fuel, improving local air quality through reductions in nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and particulate emissions compared to traditional heavy fuel oils

“Vicinity is excited to partner with Lifecycle Renewables to accelerate our shared mission to reduce the carbon footprint of the communities we serve and deliver sustainable, local and circular energy solutions to our customers in support of nationwide carbon reduction goals,” said Bill DiCroce, president and CEO of Vicinity Energy. “Lifecycle Renewables has a proven record of delivering renewable heating oil that aligns with our Clean Energy Future roadmap, and we’re proud to move forward with this biogenic fuel supply agreement to support a cleaner, healthier environment.”

“We chose to partner with Vicinity because they are the most forward-thinking district energy company in the nation,” said Rory Gaunt, president and CEO of Lifecycle Renewables. “Their ambitious march towards net zero carbon emissions provides Lifecycle Renewables an opportunity to have a positive environmental impact on hundreds of millions of square feet of building space where our fellow Americans live, work, and play. We look forward to growing our partnership in response to Vicinity’s increased demand for our renewable fuel. Our team is energized by the opportunity to supply renewable heating oil to Vicinity, as they continue on the path to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

About Lifecycle Renewables
Lifecycle Renewables is an integrated food waste recycling and renewable fuels company. Using recycled waste oils and fats from the food service industry, Lifecycle Renewables produces LR100™, a renewable heating oil. LR100™ is a drop-in fuel for oil-capable facilities that competitively replaces fossil fuels. Environmental authorities consider LR100™ to be carbon-neutral, and users of the fuel realize significant emissions reductions. With focus on providing the highest quality service to our restaurant and food-production partners, Lifecycle Renewables seeks to create closed-loop waste-to-energy solutions for cities across America. Lifecycle Renewables is now serving restaurants in New England, Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley. Learn more at: lifecyclerenewables.com

About Vicinity Energy

Vicinity Energy is a clean energy company that owns and operates an extensive portfolio of district energy systems across the United States. Vicinity produces and distributes reliable, clean steam, hot water, and chilled water to over 230 million square feet of building space nationwide. Vicinity continuously invests in its infrastructure and the latest technologies to accelerate the decarbonization of commercial and institutional buildings in city centers. Vicinity is committed to achieving net zero carbon across its portfolio by 2050. To learn more, visit https://www.vicinityenergy.us or follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.

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Vicinity Energy
Sara DeMille
Marketing and Communications