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.

Our history and future: Vicinity Energy in Kendall Square

Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has undergone many changes since the 1800s. Once a heavily industrial area, Kendall is now home to the world’s leading biotech and research facilities.

The Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company—an organization that produced fire hoses, ink stamps, and ink, along with the candy manufacturers along Main Street—was one of the first customers served by Vicinity’s original Kendall Square facility. The main steam line that runs from Kendall Station through Kendall Square was installed to feed that hose and rubber company.

In the sixties, these industrial companies gave way to new technology. For example, the Polaroid Corporation was founded right here in Cambridge by Edwin Land and George W. Wheelwright III in 1937.

At this point, the invention of the Polaroid camera was groundbreaking. The company built an empire from that idea, and employed research and university graduates to build it. In the 1980s, with the advent of digital photography, the company all but evaporated. However, biotech later reinvented the area using the same model and university brain power to find cures for chronic illnesses. Today, Edwin H. Land Blvd, named after the inventor of the Polaroid camera, runs behind our Kendall Square facility, honoring his legacy.

At the end of the line is a company called Cambridge Brands, the only place in the world that makes Junior Mints! The factory produces 15 million Junior Mints a day.

Visitors to Kendall Square often have trouble believing that an operating energy facility is in the area. This neighborhood looked drastically different when our facility was built in the 1940s. Today, a fully functional city has sprouted around our facility with lively restaurants, farmers’ markets, kayak renting, and more.

As Kendall Square has evolved, our facility and reliable steam services have remained constant. While some processes and fuels have changed, Vicinity’s system has provided thermal energy to Boston and Cambridge for almost 100 years. Despite our old roots, Vicinity’s mission is at the forefront of decarbonizing both Cambridge and Boston. Leveraging existing infrastructure, our facility is the most viable means to quickly and effectively decarbonize the buildings we serve in a timely and efficient manner.

Vicinity Energy, Kendall Square Facility

Facility history

Vicinity’s Cambridge location is currently home to three facilities, with the original facility being a yellow brick building built in 1948 by the Cambridge Electric Light Company. This building contained three 1300 PSI power boilers and was constructed as a coal-fired Rankine cycle facility, meaning the power boilers drove over condensing turbines. The facility also contained three 25 MW Westinghouse Steam Turbines and used the river for cooling as part of its original design. The main steam line runs from Kendall Station through Kendall Square and was installed to feed the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company.

When the combustion turbine was put in, they needed to bridge the two systems to make a combined cycle plant. Today, all of our systems are tied together, so steam, electricity, condensate, and all auxiliaries are now shared between the two plants.

In 1900, coal was primarily used as an energy source, so the facility was designed to burn coal, but that luckily lasted only a short time. The coal was gradually converted to heavy oils and then into natural gas. Today, we use the efficient combined heat and power (CHP) process to generate heat and electricity simultaneously.

A unique feature of district energy is that it is fuel agnostic, which allows these systems to utilize any fuel source to generate steam. Over the years, our facilities have pivoted as more sustainable fuel sources have become available, and we are continuing the legacy of prioritizing cleaner energy.

Energy goes out through two different steam lines within our facility. One is over the Longfellow Bridge. Anyone who has seen a movie filmed in Boston has likely noticed an iconic shot of this bridge.

The second steam line comes out of the plant and goes past the Cambridge Parkway, the Museum of Science, and further into the city of Boston.

The canal behind our facility was once used for commerce, running all the way up into the city. Barges would come up through the canal to deliver coal, oil, and other goods into the city of Cambridge. With the decline of coal-powered energy, the canal was truncated and is now appreciated by residents and tourists who use the water for recreational activities such as canoeing and kayaking.

When our facility was built, the city required a boardwalk for pedestrians and public use. We maintain the boardwalk to this day, and the public frequently enjoys it.


A fun fact about our Kendall facility is its connection to John F. Kennedy (JFK) and NASA. In the early 1960s, JFK, originally from Cambridge, set the ambitious goal of going to the moon. He famously stated, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And so, to achieve his goal, he needed to develop a space authority known today as NASA. In 1964, Kendall Square became home to NASA’s Electronics Research Center (ERC) to support NASA’s electronics research during the Apollo era and served as a graduate and post-graduate training center.

The ERC needed power, and our Kendall facility was the perfect location to house all the materials necessary to accommodate NASA’s Kendall Square operations.

Poster with Vicinity's Goal Zero pledge and plan, signed by staff.

Vicinity aquires Kendall Station

In 2013, the Lechmere Viaduct Steam Line doubled its green steam capacity to serve Boston, making Kendall Station’s combined heat and power the main source of thermal district energy in the city. The following year, Vicinity officially acquired Kendall Station with partner I-Squared and began investing in the system’s longevity and reliability for customers.

Vicinity has since remained committed to improving the facility to meet the growing needs of Boston and Cambridge while opting to use the greenest technologies available. From 2015 to 2018, Vicinity upgraded the water treatment system, converted the system to dual fuel, and installed a new back-pressure steam turbine and an air-cooled condenser to eliminate heat discharge to the river. We made an $8 million investment to double the plant’s water makeup capacity and installed a system to utilize 100% Charles River water for purification purposes.

Vicinity additionally replaced the air intake system for the GE 7FA Gas Turbine and upgraded the turbine to the latest technology to maximize efficiency. In 2021, Vicinity implemented biogenic fuels derived from waste vegetable oil and fats discarded by the food service industry. Biofuels are significantly cleaner than gasoline and fully biodegradable, so this change resulted in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and improved local air and water quality.

Vicinity’s recent clean energy strides at Kendall

Most recently, Vicinity has been researching, sourcing, purchasing, and installing an electric boiler in the main turbine hall. Vicinity will gradually transition away from its cogeneration turbine by installing electric boilers and heat pumps at the Kendall facility. Furthermore, Vicinity plans to purchase wholesale renewable power to generate and distribute eSteam™, a carbon-free renewable thermal energy product, to customers.

Large poster with photo showing the future home of Vicinity Energy's eSteam electric boiler

On April 5, 2023, Vicinity Energy announced its partnership with Augsburg, Germany-based MAN Energy Solutions to collaborate in developing low-temperature source heat pump systems for steam generation. Vicinity plans to install an industrial-scale heat pump complex at Kendall by 2026. Once constructed, Vicinity’s heat pump complex will be the largest in Massachusetts.

Vicinity’s first heat pump complex, which draws from proven examples in Europe, will be powered by renewable electricity to safely and efficiently harvest energy from the Charles River, returning it at a lower temperature. Because the heating sector accounts for 30-40 percent of global CO2 emissions, the global energy transition can only succeed with considerable strides to decarbonize heat. Instead of burning fossil fuels for heating purposes, water-source heat pumps use heat sources, such as lakes, rivers, or the ocean, efficiently.

Vicinity follows the example of a few cutting-edge European cities, such as Glasgow, Scotland, and Drammen, Norway. In 2021, the first water-sourced heat pump opened in Glasgow, allowing them to tap into the River Clyde, just as Vicinity will do with the Charles River.

Vicinity Energy CEO shakes hands with Man Energy CEO during partnership announcement event



Our history and future: Vicinity Energy in Kansas City

Today, the Kansas City Grand Avenue district steam and chilled water plant serves thermal energy to 8.5 million square feet of downtown Kansas City buildings for their heating and cooling needs.

In 1900, the Metropolitan Street Railway Company purchased the Kansas City Electric Light Company and began building the Missouri River Power Station. Completed in 1904 and dubbed “The Big Plant”, it was reported to be the largest electric generation station outside of New York City. The plant was built for $2.5 million, equivalent to $85 million today.

The combination of a streetcar and lighting company was a natural marriage for investors at the time, as streetcars operated during the daytime and the lighting was used for nighttime streetlights, which allowed the plant to generate revenue 24 hours a day.

At the same time, the Kansas City Heating Company was formed by the electric company stakeholders, which built steam plants in the downtown area to meet the needs of a growing central business district. By 1917, three central steam plants were heating downtown businesses. The plants were located at 6th and Baltimore, 1312 Baltimore, and 1311 Wyandotte.

As the uses for electricity grew and the streetcar gave way to automobiles, in 1927 Kansas City Power and Light Company (KCPL) bought the Missouri River Power Station from the financially strapped Street Railway Company. The plant was renamed the Grand Avenue Plant, and KCPL converted the plant from 25 cycle to 60 cycle power.

Thus, the Grand Avenue Plant became the primary electrical producer for downtown Kansas City. From 1928 to 1957, KCPL began consolidating steam production to the Grand Avenue Plant through the installation of high-pressure steam mains that connected the plant to McGee and Wyandotte Streets.

Today, 3 of the 4 boilers in service are combustion engineering ceiling hung, built-in-place style boilers that are designed to accept multiple fuel types. The large steel structure of the Grand Avenue Plant is designed to accommodate the weight of the 6-story tall boilers, which can produce 350,000 lbs./hr, and grow 6 to 7 inches when heated. The 4th boiler in service today is a packaged boiler that was installed in 1967, which has a capacity of 200,000 lbs./hr.

A growing history

In 1989, KCPL sold the steam production at Grand Avenue and the downtown steam distribution network to Trigen, whose primary focus was district energy. KCPL kept the steam turbine electric generators and bought steam from Trigen to produce electricity until 2001, when the turbines were retired. In 1998, Trigen completed a chilled water production facility at the Grand Avenue plant and distribution piping down McGee Street that would serve the City, County, and Federal buildings. The chilled water system began adding more customers on the east side of downtown KC such as the T-Mobile Center and Oak Tower.

chillers kansas city
Kansas City Grand Avenue Station chillers

In 2019, a 6,000 ft. chilled water lateral was completed down Wyandotte Street to serve the west side of downtown KC, with an anchor customer of the Lowes Hotel. This lateral has also begun serving the Convention Center, Flashcube apartments, Hotel Phillips, and 114 W. 11th Street downtown.

Today, additional buildings connected to the Vicinity system include: T-Mobile Center, 909 Walnut Apartments, Lowes Hotel, the Marriott Hotel, City Hall, the Kansas City Library, and the Lifted Spirits Distillery.

Fuel switching, efficiency, and decarbonization

District energy systems have shown great flexibility in fuel switching to help reduce both cost and carbon emissions. In 2017 to 2018, the Grand Avenue plant converted from coal to natural gas, which has collectively reduced greenhouse gas emissions in Kansas City by 33,000 tons, the equivalent of removing 7,100 cars from the road each year.

Today, the Grand Avenue plant uses a highly efficient process called combined heat and power (CHP), which uses both the heat and pressure of energy generation to achieve efficiencies from 70-80% as opposed to conventional generation. In comparison, conventional power generation from gas or steam turbines can only achieve around 30-40% efficiency.

The Grand Avenue Plant is uniquely positioned for the next fuel switch of electrification to achieve zero net carbon emissions. With access to the Missouri River to be utilized by an industrial steam generating heat pump complex, and proximity to transmission-level power for lower cost electricity, electrification will be achieved at a lower cost and greater reliability for Vicinity’s Kansas City customers.

Our history and future: Vicinity Energy in Grand Rapids

On May 1, 1888…

The City of Grand Rapids, in partnership with Thomas Edison, created the Grand Rapids Edison Light and Fuel Co., which kickstarted operations at the southwest corner of West Fulton Street and Ottawa Avenue. Having been designed by the Edison Light Co., the plant was handsomely styled with floors of polished hardwood and 16-foot walls of white pine with a natural finish. The four coal-fed boilers were tubular and rated at 150 H.P., each at 80 pounds of pressure to generate electricity and heating to support the growing city.

The engine and dynamo room housed three Taylor Beck high speed, non-condensing engines, each belted to a pair of Edison 125-volt direct current generators. The Fulton Street Plant not only powered the 19th century city’s trolley cars and incandescent street lightning, but also supported the rapidly growing furniture industry.

fulton sign grand rapids

In 1897, the first heating mains were installed in a new building next door, at the southeast corner of West Fulton and Market. The steam was turned on on October 15, 1897 and to this day, the Grand Rapids Heating Plant occupies that site.

By 1911, a report in the Common Council minutes revealed that 39 facilities were using steam heat from the central station. Contrary to popular belief at the time, there were no steam tunnels beneath the city of Grand Rapids, with the exception of a very early tunnel beneath Union Station which no longer exists.

An exciting system revamp

Consumers Energy Co. acquired operations of the facility in 1915, and eight years later, the plant was rebuilt in two different sections. From 1922 to 1927, the steam distribution system was further expanded into the downtown Grand Rapids area. These new steam mains replaced all existing mains installed prior to 1916. While low pressure pipes could originally be found under streets, newer installations were placed under sidewalks as they were cheaper and easier to access.

When urban renewal efforts took the city by storm in 1965, the old boilers were retired and replaced with three 100,000 pound-per-hour gas or oil-fired boilers. In addition, 125-pound steam mains were constructed to serve new buildings in the lower Monroe Street. In 1970, the fourth 150,000 pound-per-hour boiler was installed alongside a 125-pound steam main to serve St. Mary’s Free Bed Hospital Complex.

Kent County purchased the District Heating and Cooling Operations (DHCO) from Consumers Energy Co. in May of 1986.

Vicinity takes over operations

In 2008, Vicinity Energy acquired the Grand Rapids district energy facility and steam system from Kent County. The system is now primarily fed by natural gas, with a view toward the integration of higher environmentally sustainable fuel sources. Through investments in high efficiency technology and green energy sourcing, Vicinity delivers steam with a 38% lower carbon footprint vs. traditional boiler plants.

Today, the steam distribution system consists of approximately seven miles of underground pipes: five miles of underground high-pressure distribution and two miles of low-pressure. Customers use steam for critical processes such as space heating sterilization, laundry, culinary use, humidification, domestic hot water, and melting snow.

The high-pressure system is nominally operated at 120 psig, and monitored at the Fulton Steam Plant through local gauges and at remote locations in the distribution system to ensure high reliability to all customers.

Saint Mary’s Hospital is the largest single customer of Vicinity’s Grand Rapids operations, while the City of Grand Rapids is the system’s largest customer in aggregate, with a total of 15 buildings on the system. Other major buildings included the Public Museum, City Hall, Federal Building, State Building, County Courthouse, Amway Grand Plaza, Plaza Towers, the Van Andel Institute, DeVos Convention Center, Downtown Parking Ramps, the Van Andel Arena, and the Monroe Mall, along with various snow melt systems.

The advantages of district energy

Today, the Vicinity-owned and operated district energy system serves 112 individual properties throughout Grand Rapids including hospitals, universities, hotels, and other residential and commercial buildings. Vicinity Energy has invested over $10 million in plant and distribution system improvements to increase the facility’s energy reliability, resiliency, and cost-effectiveness, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 11,000 tons annually.

There are various advantages to opting for a district energy system like Vicinity’s, especially for older buildings undergoing restoration.

District energy service replaces the need for in-house boilers and domestic water heating systems in many of the city’s most prominent buildings, saving installation and maintenance costs, as well as valuable building space, and reduces overall risk of operations.

In Grand Rapids, where cold weather is frequent, district energy is the optimal choice for reliability needs: the system has built-in redundancy within their central plants and networks, meaning it can leverage multiple generating assets and fuel, power, and water sources.

The city and community of Grand Rapids is committed to addressing climate change and district energy is also meeting the demands for more sustainable energy service.

With its history of fuel switching, from coal to oil to natural gas, district energy is uniquely poised to switch to more sustainable fuel sources like renewables as they become available. As part of Vicinity’s clean energy future roadmap, all our operations around the country will be decarbonized by 2050 or sooner, and in turn reducing the carbon footprint of Grand Rapids.

Exciting new territory

In February of 2023, Vicinity proudly welcomed new Grand Rapids-based employees and celebrated taking over operations of the Kent County Waste-to-Energy facility. The takeover of this 18MW plant is expected to save Kent County in operating costs annually while reinforcing Vicinity’s commitment to quality service, the environment, and the local workforce.

Kent County WTE Vicinity sign

Vicinity has welcomed the existing plant employees to its team and will hire more team members to ensure safe, efficient, and reliable services are delivered to the residents and businesses served by the facility. This partnership marks a critical milestone in Vicinity’s commitment to sustainability and bringing new jobs and services to West Michigan.