Inside one of America’s Largest District Energy Systems 2

Thursday, March 10th, 2016
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In one building, a silvery natural gas turbine built by GE producing 2,000 degree exhaust, the temperature of molten lava. In the other, a pair of old Westinghouse relics ‘firing on all cylinders.’

There’s about 30 miles of networked pipe connecting 240 buildings – offices, residential towers, hospitals, and numerous other public buildings.

It will cut about 475,000 tons of carbon from the footprint of two world class cities. It’s dusty, dirty, loud and steamy. There are dials, buttons and lights, 18 monitors, a keyboard and a mouse. It’s ugly, but efficient. And it’s more than 60 years old.

It’s one of the largest district energy systems in the United States: the Kendall Square Cogeneration Station in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Late last year, I took representatives from nine North American cities on a tour of the plant as part of a three-day workshop I facilitated on district-scale sustainability. The district energy tour was just one part of a broader workshop agenda, but it provided cities with a first-hand glimpse into the world of district energy – something that is somewhat of a rarity here in Australia.

This is no modest cogeneration plant on the rooftop of a building. The Kendall Square plant takes up almost two city blocks, comprises at least five separate buildings, and towers more than four storeys in height. It’s a natural fit for Kendall Square, the homeland of biotech companies, high-end research labs, MIT, Google and Microsoft.

This is where tech talent breeds. This is where innovation permeates all dialogue. This is where the ‘next’ in sustainability is born, and this energy generation facility is a central component of keeping the precinct running, as well as the neighborhoods beyond it.

Here’s a short photographic tour within the belly of the beast.


On the ground floor of the plant, you are enveloped by networks upon networks of pipes, cylinders, and pumps.


This 60-year-old plant at times looks its age, with many antiques that, while fully operational, express a more analogue era.


At its heart, two Westinghouse gas-fired turbines generate enough electricity to power 175,000 homes, and enough steam to heat 40 million square feet of building space.


The heat exhaust from the turbines is cooled with water from the nearby Charles River to produce steam, and the network is monitored via a series of dashboard screens throughout the facility. Here, one of the Veolia crew members talks our group through the real-time performance of the system, and how they maintain the system at an optimum operating level. They nurture this facility like its their baby, a great group of people indeed.


Inside the poky control room, you are mesmerised by the wall of lights, buttons and controls. And there standing proud, was the central keyboard and mouse – something so ancient, yet so critical to the entire operation.

And below is an image of one of the beautiful buildings in Kendall Square that this system powers – Cambridge’s first LEED Platinum rated building, the Genzyme Headquarters.


For the district energy geeks in Australia who haven’t had the opportunity to ‘touch and feel’ a district energy system, there are more than 400 of them in North America, and it is definitely worth your time to take a visit. The International District Energy Association has been around for over 100 years and are a valuable resource when it comes to all things district energy. I encourage you to connect with them.

Closer to home, the Green Building Council of Australia last week facilitated a group of its members to advance its thinking on a range of new policy issues, and it was refreshing to see the strong appetite by industry leaders encouraging the GBCA to take a national leadership position on district energy.

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  1. Barry B

    Impressive stuff – if only we saw a similar level of initiative and innovation here in Australia.

  2. Ken

    There are numerous examples in Australia too