Community Energy Solutions in Boston: Next Steps

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Bradford Swing, Boston’s director of energy policy and programs, describes the city’s action to promote community energy solutions, including district energy microgrids.

community energy solutions

Bradford Swing,
director of energy policy and programs, City of Boston

In June 2018, Boston took two actions to promote community energy solutions in both the public and private sectors. First, Boston started a feasibility assessment funded by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) for a district energy microgrid proposed for the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park.  Second, Boston adopted a new Smart Utilities Policy, which includes guidelines for private developers to plan for and, when feasible, develop district energy microgrids.  Both actions build on the 2016 Boston Community Energy Study, help implement the recently adopted strategic plans Imagine Boston 2030 and Resilient Boston, and contribute to the city’s progress towards a Climate Ready Boston and 2050 goal for a Carbon Free Boston.   

District energy is a community energy solution that supplies thermal energy to multiple buildings via underground pipes carrying steam, hot water, and cold water. A microgrid is an electricity generation and distribution system generally serving multiple buildings that can be operated with the main power grid or, as needed, disconnected from the main power grid and function independently in island mode.  Combining the two, a District Energy Microgrid is an energy generation and distribution system that includes both the thermal services of district energy and the electrical generation and distribution services of a microgrid.

Public sector/Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park Project

The marine park, a 191-acre former military base owned by the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation (EDIC), dba Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA), is a prime location for a district energy microgrid project because of its location along the South Boston Waterfront and EDIC’s commitment to its tenants to reduce operating costs, provide district-scale backup power, and meet power quality needs.  The feasibility assessment builds on work that has identified potential end users, technology options, and a preliminary scope for a district energy microgrid project. This work has included engagement and outreach to the park’s tenants including the Massachusetts Port Authority.

One key question for the feasibility assessment is what governance and financing model will work best: a public-private partnership (3P) or a utility-driven solution. Under the 3P approach, EDIC would procure a single energy service company (ESCO) to provide energy management services to the public and private property owners and tenants within the marine park. These services would deploy project-finance mechanisms including a design-build-operate structure for the development of the district energy microgrid and an energy performance contract for building energy improvements. Because EDIC lacks procurement authority for this approach, Boston City Council passed a home rule petition to authorize a 3P for this project, which now is pending in the state legislature. But ultimately a utility-driven solution, whether utility ownership or a utility-led procurement, may prove the most viable route. Both utility-driven approaches are currently underway in other parts of the country.

Private sector/Smart utilities policy

District Energy Microgrids are one of five Smart Utility Technologies (SUTs) included in the newly-adopted Smart Utilities Policy. For projects above 1.5 million square feet, the BPDA shall, as part of project review under the Boston Zoning Code, require a feasibility assessment for a District Energy Microgrid.  If the assessment shows that a District Energy Microgrid is feasible, then the developer must prepare and implement a District Energy Microgrid Master Plan.  (The other four SUTs addressed in the policy are a telecommunications utilidor, green infrastructure, adaptive signal technology and smart street lights.)  

District Energy Microgrids are prevalent on institutional campuses and military bases but are only recently emerging in the private sectors.  Thus, the viability of this new policy depended on consultation with private developers anticipated to be subject to the requirements. Developers suggested the need for the threshold feasibility assessment to determine whether a master plan will be required. The master plan will address whether the development will be in phases and whether the cost of constructing the local energy plant for the district energy microgrid only makes sense in a second or third phase. When phasing is a concern, the BPDA will ask for District Energy Microgrid-ready designs for the early phases. The new policy builds on a series of workshops that Boston convened to address barriers to multi-user community energy solutions.

The Smart Utilities Policy implements the Smart Utilities Vision project (“SUV Project”), which studied new approaches to providing equitable, sustainable, affordable, and resilient utility services. The SUV Project originally studied what a construction plan would look like for ten SUTs within the 144-acre South Dorchester Avenue planning area and its envisioned two miles of new roads and 12-16 million square feet of new development. This work produced a business-as-usual report, a baseline analysis of business-as-usual utility construction in the study area, and a cost-benefit analysis of the SUTs over the 20-year build out of the study area, compared to the business-as-usual baseline. The cost-benefit analysis guided the selection of various size thresholds for the five SUTs included in the Smart Utilities Policy, including the 1.5 million square feet that triggers District Energy Microgrid feasibility assessment and master planning. The SUV Project also developed Smart Utility Standards, a guidebook for the city, developers and utility companies that illustrates how water/wastewater, electrical, storm drain, street lighting, traffic signals and telecommunications infrastructure can be better designed and coordinated.  

Boston has led the nation is examining policy barriers to community energy solutions.  With these two actions promoting public and private district energy microgrids, Boston is now poised to build a climate ready future that includes district energy microgrids that lowers the cost of energy to end users, improves energy system resiliency and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.  

Bradford Swing is the director of energy policy and programs, City of Boston.

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