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Could Philly’s steam system provide a climate solution?

By District Energy posted 09-07-2022 12:52




Beneath Philadelphia’s streets lies a 41-mile network of pipes carrying low-pressure steam to dozens of buildings in Center City. From the Wanamaker building and the University of Pennsylvania to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the new Comcast Towers — all are heated by a system installed about 100 years ago and referred to as “the steam loop.”

“It’s like a ring of steam, where you have a bunch of people connected to that ring taking the steam and using it,” said Mike Ancona, operations manager for Vicinity Energy, a private equity firm that now owns and operates Philadelphia’s steam loop system.

Vicinity Energy says it has a good solution to help the city reach its climate goals: decarbonize all the buildings within the current steam loop. Through a combination of biofuel, currently sourced from local restaurants, “renewable natural gas” from organic waste, along with electricity generated by renewables such as wind and solar, it says it can greatly reduce or eliminate the use of natural gas to generate steam. The company says it plans to install state-of-the-art storage technology like molten salt or volcanic rock to take advantage of renewables both day and night. Vicinity’s district energy steam plant in Boston is moving in that direction.
“We can quickly switch our fuel sources as soon as they become available,” said Sara DeMille, Vicinity’s head of marketing. “So as soon as more biogenic fuel becomes available, we can take it on. As soon as renewable natural gas becomes available in the quantities that we need, we can take it on.”

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