Could Steam Loops Under Cities Be The Solution For Major Environmental Problems?

Steam loops are piping paths under city streets that help heat and provide energy to cities. Places like Boston are installing them now to combat climate change.

By Ryan Clancy | Published

Electrical companies installed systems called “steam loops” over 100 years ago in cities like Boston and New York. Hundreds of town and city centers, commercial buildings, hospitals, and schools are heated and have electricity from these networks. They provide cold water for air conditioning systems as well.

The premise behind steam loops is that it involves steam being moved through a series of underground pipes. Most civilians only notice this network of pipes through the excess steam that rises through the sidewalk grates; see iconic New York photographs for reference. They are one of the greatest engineering America has ever completed, and basically, storm and extreme weatherproof provide reliable electricity and heating for all. 

Engineers and scientists are looking at these steam loop systems as a possible climate change solution. In cities like Philadelphia on the east coast, a plant produces steam for this system; it is one of the last remaining industrial plants on the Schuylkill River. The steam that is produced travels all over the city along 41 miles of underground pipes.

While the plant historically burned fossil fuels, it now burns natural gas to generate steam. The plant is an old historical building built in 1915; it is now home to modern equipment that runs Philadelphia’s electricity grid and produces steam to heat many buildings. It can also produce medical-grade steam used in the sterilization of medical equipment.

This system, which is deeply embedded in 900 of America’s major cities and towns, could easily switch from gas to a renewable energy source or low-carbon fuel to produce this steam.

In fact, this very theory is being trialed in Boston. Building owners or bill-payers do not have to do a thing to switch to this new renewable source of energy in steam loops, and there is no extra cost, either. Universities, schools, and businesses are benefiting from a lower carbon footprint and potentially reaching net zero. It is an elegant solution to a complicated problem with little cost to anyone. 

But in Philadelphia, they plan to remove their steam loop and change it entirely to natural gas, not renewable energy, despite pledging to reach carbon net zero by 2050 and President Biden’s nationwide commitment to climate change. This change will make the system more reliable and efficient and save the transportation sector money.

Angry environmental groups in Philadelphia are frustrated as there was no thought on the level of greenhouse gas emissions this change would cause, no public hearings, and no public bidding process. While this steam loops plan was initially implemented in 2015 under President Obama, there is still time to update to a more environmentally friendly program. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the green dollar bills win against greener emissions.

Steam loops, though not well known, seem like the obvious answer to a simple question. At the same time, that is not considering various constitutional and business factors that might sway that opinion. In the times we live in at the moment, any righteous man would take the carbon net zero route and help in saving our planet. Right?