Energy company that heats and cools downtown Kansas City is going green

A rooftop restaurant on a downtown office building. A quick-melting ice rink in Sprint Center. A vanishing coal pile at the Missouri riverfront.

They have nothing in common — unless you know about the network of heating and cooling pipes snaking beneath downtown Kansas City streets.

All three things are tied to Veolia, the energy company that supplies what’s known as “district energy” from a plant at First Street and Grand Boulevard that’s fed by coal and natural gas.

By the end of the year, Veolia’s coal yard will be emptied — Veolia is converting the plant to natural gas alone. The switch will free about four acres of Missouri riverfront property for redevelopment.

“We’re dismantling coal,” said plant general manager Matthew DiGeronimo. “There’s no going back.”

But what about the office building restaurant? Hooked up to Veolia’s network, that building won’t need its own cooling equipment on its rooftop, freeing it to be a “clean” or “green” space.

And the arena? It’s a Veolia customer and has found that switching from a concert floor to an ice rink or back again goes faster when the building pulls steam or chilled water from the network to power the transition, sometimes in less than four hours.

The buried pipelines serve those buildings with district energy, a concept that relies on a central plant to produce steam, hot water or chilled water that is pumped to multiple customers. Those customers don’t need their own boilers, furnaces, chillers or air conditioners to heat or cool their buildings.

While Veolia continues to add buildings to its network, the company says its biggest move this year is eliminating coal. It’s making the move for environmental reasons, to reduce reliance on fossil fuel and help pare carbon emissions — the equivalent of taking 80,000 cars off the street.

“We used to use 95 percent coal,” said assistant plant manager Scott Stordahl. “Lately, we’re pushing to a little more gas. The plant’s four existing boilers already can burn coal or run on natural gas, and we already have two natural gas feeds from MGE, so we just need to turn on the tap.”

Old concept renewed

Long before Veolia acquired it, the plant at First and Grand opened in 1904 to supply power for Kansas City’s original streetcars and streetlights.

Kansas City Power & Light Co. bought the coal-fired plant in 1927 and ran the first steam lines down Grand, Wyandotte and McGee streets, pulling water from the Missouri River to cool the generators. That was the beginning of district energy in Kansas City, although the concept is said to extend as far back as the Roman Empire.

In the late 1980s, KCP&L was focused on all-electric buildings, and many existing buildings went off the district energy network. KCP&L was ready to get out of the steam generation business, and the First and Grand plant was sold to Trigen, which continued to use both coal and natural gas to generate steam.

In 1997, Trigen installed chillers and ran more underground distribution pipes to downtown buildings. Then Veolia, a French company like Trigen, bought Trigen’s facilities around the world between 2005 and 2008.

“We decided to take a more environmental promotion path,” Stordahl said. In addition to getting rid of coal, that path includes stepped-up marketing to try to convince more builders, renovators and managers to connect to the grid.

In the Veolia network, steam and water courses to and from downtown buildings through carbon steel pipes buried underground and encased in concrete. Some of the oldest heating and cooling customers are downtown’s government buildings, city, county and federal. Other customers include several hotels, some office buildings, the Sprint Center and Truman Medical Center.

“We don’t expand the grid speculatively,” DiGeronimo said. “We run a line if a building wants it.”

One line, extended south under Cherry Street to the Truman hospital, opened the way for more commercial customers along that line. A plan to serve the proposed Hyatt hotel at the Kansas City Convention Center will bring more opportunity on the west side of downtown.

“That line, knock on wood, would open district energy up to 20 more buildings along that path,” DiGeronimo said.

Veolia also is talking to Foutch Brothers, which has redevelopment rights for Kemper Arena.

“District energy grows in nodes,” DiGeronimo explained. “Kemper could create a new district energy growth in the West Bottoms.”

Already, Veolia has an extension to a Cargill soybean and biodiesel plant in the East Bottoms and a line running north on a train bridge across the river to the Ingredion corn starch plant in North Kansas City.

“We’re just beginning to go beyond commercial,” DiGeronimo said. “We’re putting steam into the Soho Lofts, our first residential development in Kansas City.”

By converting to district energy, a building doesn’t need to own or maintain its own boiler or chiller equipment. And district energy frees building managers from worrying about changes in environmental or refrigerant laws.

“We take care of CFCs away from their buildings,” Stordahl said of the refrigerant. “We take care of their operation, maintenance and safety worries.”

Building choices

Conversion to district energy isn’t a slam dunk. Many building managers are comfortable with the systems and equipment they know. And some developers, even when building from scratch, choose other methods.

Just two blocks from the Veolia plant, developer Jonathan Arnold leads a team building a new energy-efficient apartment complex at Second and Delaware streets. He applauds district energy systems.

“But we opted for a smaller-scale system,” Arnold said. “It’s a higher finish cost to us, but it will generate electricity that can be used for our buildings by using our waste heat to heat our hot water for free.”

The Second and Delaware system, in essence, creates its own microgrid, another way to reduce its energy costs.

In the major renovation of Commerce Tower and an adjacent garage and retail structure in the 900 block of Main Street, the developer is going with two systems. Michael Knight said it worked better financially to go with district energy for the garage and CVS store but use the tower’s own heating and cooling systems in the apartment and office renovation.

Other property managers are unequivocable supporters of district energy.

“We’re definitely saving money with district energy,” said Tom Corso, a property manager with MC Realty Group, which has four downtown office buildings and the big Marriott hooked up to the Veolia grid. “And we’ve never had a power outage.”

Corso said one of the old buildings, at 114 W. 11th St., was an early district energy user, then had its own boilers for about 15 years, but “the maintenance was too high.” The switch about five years ago to district energy freed up space when the building no longer needed a mechanical room.

Now, Corso said, MC Realty Group is talking to Veolia about bringing a chilled water loop to buildings on the west side of downtown where the network currently doesn’t exist.

“Some of these older buildings with existing chillers aren’t cost effective,” Corso said. “And there could be a problem in the future to get the refrigerants.”

District energy also has worked well for the Sprint Center, which saved between $8 million and $10 million by linking to the network instead of installing its own equipment.

The arena “is able to utilize several thousand square feet of space on the event level by not having to house the significant amount of chillers, boilers, cooling towers, hot water pumps, etc.” that it would need, said Brenda Tinnen, Sprint Center’s general manager.

Tinnen said the arena also counts on Veolia to keep up to date with state-of-the-art technology and upgrade as needed to heat and cool the arena.

Veolia officials said the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts was actually overbuilt in terms of chiller capacity. But by tying into the district energy grid, its excess capacity could be routed to serve other facilities instead of sitting idle. The new Hyatt hotel also could extend the network, perhaps to include the proposed music campus downtown for the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

While Veolia is in business to sell steam and chilled water, DiGeronimo said it also wants to do business by doing good. Part of that includes becoming a zero-waste-to-landfill operation, joining a select few Kansas City companies that can now make that claim. The other part is eliminating coal as a fuel source.

Aside from coal sellers losing a customer, the coal elimination may disappoint construction companies that use the Veolia plant’s bottom ash and fly ash byproducts. The Briarcliff development north of the river, for example, used fly ash for construction landfill.

But the conversion to all natural gas also frees up four acres of prime riverfront acreage for redevelopment instead of a dumping ground for coal. Veolia doesn’t yet have plans for the site, but DiGeronimo said the idea wheels are spinning.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

Veolia plant tours

The public is welcome to take guided tours of the Veolia plant on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Please call Scott Stordahl at 816-889-4969 to arrange tours.