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Steam power offers Rochester viable green energy option

We architects have tended to focus much of our efforts over the years on creating inspiring spaces in which to live and work. More and more we find ourselves spending an equal amount of attention on ensuring that our buildings are healthy, energy efficient and sustainable-in a word, "green."

  Many of the design strategies we talk about with our clients involve new materials, creative construction methods and "cutting-edge" technologies. But here in Rochester, one such opportunity uses "old-school" technology and is a powerful hidden resource.

  Buried beneath our center city is a network of steam lines that helped Rochester grow during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, this extensive in-ground investment has the potential to give owners of new and existing buildings a green choice to meet their energy needs.

  On a side street near the Midtown Plaza site, a power station is quietly supplying steam energy to many of Rochester’s most visible buildings, including Xerox Tower, Blue Cross Arena, Chase Tower, the Bausch & Lomb Public Library Building and the Keating Federal Building. The facility, originally constructed in the early 1900s, was extensively re-engineered in 1985 by the Rochester District Heating Cooperative. The non-profit provides steam heating service to downtown building owners, connecting them to the RDH network and eliminating the need for on-site equipment. This system has the capacity to provide clean, green energy to many more downtown structures within the Inner Loop.

  So what makes this steam energy network eco-friendly?

  The fundamental idea of district energy is simple but powerful: connect multiple heating and cooling energy users through an underground piping network to environmentally responsible energy sources at central plants. District energy systems produce and pipe steam, hot water or chilled water through a dedicated underground network to heat or cool buildings in a given area. They reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions, free up space in customer buildings and optimize the use of fuels, power and resources.

  District energy systems deliver economies of scale by meeting the thermal needs of otherwise independent buildings. They employ equipment and technologies that can be substantially more efficient and versatile than individual buildings’ own cooling and heating equipment. For example, a system can permit use of truly sustainable energy sources such as biomass and household waste, thus reducing emissions of greenhouse gases while cutting energy costs.

  With green-city programs and state initiatives intended to lower emissions and raise environmental consciousness, many U.S. companies and municipalities are reconsidering their energy decisions and investigating more efficient options. Companies that used to make energy-purchasing decisions based on cost alone are now heavily factoring environmental impact into their decisions. Building owners have begun to consider district heating and cooling systems to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

  District energy systems have become the preferred method of heating and cooling most major college and university campuses, providing a highly reliable and scalable energy supply. Many universities are adding or increasing their ability to generate electricity on campus and are recycling heat from power generation to heat buildings and drive steam chillers for campus air conditioning.

  This kind of system also is rapidly becoming a crucial option for urban development. It is estimated that more than half of the world’s people live in cities. Over the coming years, most population growth is projected to take place in metropolitan areas. This growth trend will place increasing stresses on natural resources. Accordingly, we can expect increasing demand for more sustainable energy resources and much higher standards of efficiency in energy production and delivery.

  The district energy concept actually is an old idea that is an increasingly responsible solution to today’s environmental concerns. The city of Rochester has one of the most well-positioned systems in the country, with a long history.

  When the original "Edison Electric Utilities" were being formed in major cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore, many utility operators found that steam service revenues were very important to the profitability of the early enterprise. In many cases, the production of electricity also yielded steam that could be used to heat buildings. To persuade a prospective customer to buy electricity from the new power grid, which required shutting down its building generator and heat source, the electric utility sometimes had to agree to provide piped-in steam as well.

  One of these utilities, the Edison Electric Illuminating Co., opened for business in Rochester by establishing its first power plant on Exchange Street in the late 1800s. It was the first utility to provide steam to neighboring buildings as a byproduct of its electrical generating operations. This system was expanded and consolidated over time as competing electrical utilities merged to eventually become Rochester Gas and Electric Corp. By 1930, Rochester had one of the largest steam distribution systems in the United States.

  Many in our community believe that our downtown district is poised for significant growth and reinvestment. It is likely that we will soon witness the substantial remaking of the Midtown district, and other sectors of the city may follow. Whether new buildings in these areas will use the RDH system remains to be seen. While the advantages of district energy are recognized, obstacles exist to extending it into new structures. One of the principal issues is the perceived dependence of participating in a cooperative system, as opposed to owning and controlling one’s own energy-generating equipment.

  As trends toward greater efficiency and environmentally responsible energy use continue, new downtown structures will almost certainly be greener. They might be powered by steam.

Jim Durfee is vice president and design principal at Bergmann Associates. An architect and past president of American Institute of Architects-Rochester, he can be reached at (585) 232-5135 or at

2/11/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail


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