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How Green Steam Is Helping Life Sciences Heat Up in Philly


If the topic of life sciences comes up, people probably think of gene sequencing and other sophisticated biotechnology research.

What probably doesn’t immediately come to mind is steam. Yet scientists involved in energy-intensive bioscience R&D depend on reliable access to high-pressure steam to both sterilize equipment and maintain optimum temperatures in labs. 

Vicinity Energy, a Philadelphia-based provider of district energy solutions, is using combined heat and power — or CHP — to not only supply the thermal energy needs of high-tech customers, but also to help support the city of Philadelphia’s mission to curb carbon emissions.

Vicinity Chief Revenue Officer Jackie Bliss said that CHP is a highly efficient way to simultaneously generate electricity for the power grid and provide thermal energy for buildings, which can include large office, mixed-use and major research facilities. The captured waste heat has many applications for building owners, in addition to environmental benefits for the community, she said.

“In Philadelphia, we convert the waste heat from generating electricity into steam, which is then distributed through our underground network of pipes serving more than 100M SF of building space,” she said. “Our customers in Philadelphia and 11 other major U.S. cities use this low-carbon thermal energy for heating, cooling, hot water, humidification and sterilization. Recently, we have seen a really dramatic uptick in the demand for steam from the life sciences sector across our districts.”

One such customer is a leading commercial property developer in Philadelphia that owns multiple properties in downtown Center City. Given the current life sciences market surge, it had to rapidly convert former office space into R&D laboratory space to meet growing tenant demand. Rather than invest significant upfront capital in on-site boilers, Bliss said, the developer opted to connect to district energy for its known reliability, scalability and capacity to meet the volume, quality and other precise requirements needed for laboratory research.

In addition to meeting the operational needs of customers, Bliss said, the use of CHP and the excess recovered heat generated via the CHP process benefits the environment and supports the city of Philadelphia in its goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050

“CHP is a greener option,” Bliss said. “By recycling the waste heat from generating power and turning it into steam, we can deliver greener thermal energy to our customers — with a much lower carbon footprint than if a building were to install on-site gas boilers.”

In fact, through its CHP operations, Vicinity is responsible for reducing carbon emissions in Philadelphia by approximately 300,000 tons annually — the equivalent of removing almost 65,000 cars from the roads every year, Bliss stated.

Bliss noted that more life sciences operations are setting up shop in Philadelphia, one of Vicinity’s largest markets. As building owners struggle to fill office spaces left vacant by the coronavirus pandemic, Bliss suggested that Vicinity’s district energy infrastructure could help them attract new tenants active in the growing field of biotechnology.

Already, Vicinity’s Philadelphia customers enjoy readily available low-carbon energy, Bliss said. Like the commercial property developer active in Center City, she added, many buildings on Vicinity’s Philadelphia grid may have considered installing their own natural gas boilers, but changed their minds and decided to go with steam after evaluating the benefits of district energy and running the numbers. 

“My biggest piece of advice to building owners is that they really need to compare their options,” she said. “We run into situations all the time where people think that because natural gas is cheap, they’ll just put a gas boiler in their building. But, when you actually add up the capital cost of buying and installing those boilers, the cost of operating and maintaining them, additional staff and labor, insurance — when you put it all together, oftentimes it's more expensive than CHP-generated steam. Not to mention, district energy provides other environmental, safety and reliability benefits.”

Bliss said that customers on Vicinity’s energy network are eligible for LEED points, which can help a building achieve LEED certification. That is an important selling point for many businesses today.

“Space and comfort are really important to people, but they also care about their carbon footprint,” she said. “Being sustainable matters to consumers today. and we can support building owners and managers in getting their buildings LEED certified.”

Waste heat from Vicinity’s CHP operations isn’t the only sort of waste Vicinity recovers and reuses. This spring, the company announced a partnership that is expected to recycle more than 600,000 gallons of waste cooking oil generated by restaurants in Philadelphia annually to be used as fuel in its district system. 

The use of this biogenic fuel will allow Vicinity to eliminate its remaining use of backup petroleum-based heating oil. Vicinity expects the initiative will cut its carbon emissions by an additional 12,200 tons a year, or the equivalent of removing 2,650 cars from Philadelphia’s streets.

Whether Vicinity is leveraging its CHP system to support sustainable life sciences growth or repurposing recycled cooking oil created by local restaurants, Bliss said the company is serious about reducing its carbon footprint and achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 across all of its district energy operations.

“Frankly, I think we'll get there well before that,” she said.

This article was produced in collaboration between Studio B and Vicinity Energy. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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