Circular Philadelphia is proud to announce that Vicinity Energy has become the newest sponsor to help our organization continue advancing the circular economy in the Philadelphia region.
Circular Philadelphia was founded to bring together individuals, businesses, manufacturers, institutions, local government, and policy makers to lead the shift to a circular economy in the Philadelphia region. And we’ve been extremely grateful for the diverse organizations and individuals who have signed on as members to help us fulfill this mission both with their financial and volunteer support.
“We have a sustainability focus because we have no other choice,” explains Vicinity’s Chief Sustainability Officer Matt O’Malley. “Climate change and its effects will be absolutely cataclysmic, and we need to do everything we can, as a utility and as a business, to make sure that we’re able to adapt to better technology that is going to help us lower our greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonize our system.”
Vicinity Energy produces and distributes steam, hot water, and chilled water to over 230 million square feet (nearly eight square miles) of building space nationwide via a series of district energy systems in major U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Boston, Cambridge, and Baltimore. For over 100 years, an innovative and sustainable district energy system has operated in Center City, quite literally hidden beneath our feet.
Throughout much of Center City and parts of University City, a network of underground pipes carry steam to heat hundreds of high rise buildings from apartments and commercial buildings to hospitals and universities.. Rather than each building relying on their own boilers, the district energy system is more efficient, reliable and lowers the carbon footprint of our city by aggregating the central production and distribution of thermal energy to nearby buildings, connected in a ‘district.’ The Philadelphia system is also powered by combined heat and power (CHP). With an efficiency as high as 80%, as compared to about 50% in an individual building gas boiler, Vicinity’s district energy system avoids over 300,000 tons of carbon emissions annually..
Another great advantage of district energy is its ability to become progressively greener by integrating new fuel sources into its energy mix, dramatically reducing carbon emission for buildings connected to its grid.. Spanning a 100-year history, the district energy system has evolved over the years in the fuel source used to heat the system’s main boilers located in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia – from coal, oil and natural gas. Vicinity Energy is now at a new inflection point. In 2020, Vicinity pledged to reach net zero carbon emissions across all its operations by 2050 – a formal commitment to decarbonize in the cities where it operates.
“I think it’s an opportunity to not only talk about what we’re doing, but also learn from what some other folks are doing.”
– Matt O’Malley, Chief Sustainability Officer
The company’s first exciting initiative since launching its net-zero commitment has been Vicinity’s use of LR100™, a unique biogenic fuel derived from waste vegetable oil and fats discarded by the food service industry. Starting in spring 2021, Vicinity has incorporated LR100™ into its fuel mix to replace its back-up supply of conventional fuel oil use. In a great example of circular principles in action, Vicinity works with its partner Lifecycle Renewables, Inc. to pick up waste cooking grease at local restaurants like Barbuzzo to then use in Vicinity’s boilers to deliver steam to multiple customers, including Jefferson Hospital only a few blocks away. Check out the CBS3 Philly news segment here to watch Vicinity in action.
By collecting waste grease that would normally pose a major challenge for cities and putting it to use as renewable fuel, the project reduces the environmental impact of the city’s food service industry, saves restaurants money on disposal fees and converts a former waste stream into a useful energy source. This method of conversion also reduces the amounts of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, particulates pollution in the air that we breathe, and directly combats rising climate temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
O’Malley also told Circular Philadelphia of an exciting plan to further adapt Vicinity’s sustainable portfolio by incorporating renewable electricity sources like wind and solar energy to power its district energy operations – transitioning to carbon-free renewable steam. Vicinity has already begun implementation of this plan in Boston, which O’Malley describes as a “three legged stool” . Vicinity will begin by installing electric boilers to replace its natural gas boilers. Vicinity will then utilize improved heat pump technology and will install one of the largest heat pump facilities in North America.
The third–and final–component of the plan is improved battery storage. Vicinity is already connected to the grid and has access to wholesale electricity. Enhanced battery storage, will enable Vicinity to purchase wind energy during off peak hours to store and use during peak hours at favorable rates to customers. Vicinity will begin to implement the same plan at its Philadelphia facility sometime in the next year.
Although Vicinity has a proven record of sustainable practices, one may ask how they fit into the circular economy. O’Malley explains, “We support Circular Philadelphia because as an enterprise with a mission to be stewards of our environment, we are always working to offer the best product that is also sustainable and environmentally friendly. And it’s important that we meet the moment that we’re in right now. So I think that any policies that minimize waste as well as excess utility usage is what we ought to be doing. The times demand it and our customers want it.”
Vicinity Energy’s Environmental Health &, Safety and Green Solutions Manager Jessica Hartley also adds that she’s excited for the community development opportunities to partner with grassroot organizations that share a similar mission in Philadelphia. She sees Circular Philadelphia as an integral partner in helping with those connections. In her view, Circular Philadelphia is key to progressing the collective action the City requires to advance sustainable and circular practices.
“We’re also excited to help educate Philadelphia more about what a circular economy is,” Hartley explains. “We’re interested in co-hosting seminars or events to help support both of our missions and the City’s sustainability objectives.”
“I think it’s an opportunity to not only talk about what we’re doing, but also learn from what some other folks are doing,” O’Malley agrees. “We all need to be rowing in the same direction and to really take advantage of some of the incredibly exciting things that are happening in Greater Philadelphia, and as the City’s green steam provider, we want to be a part of it.”