Writer: Kim Kisner

Detroit Thermal Leverages Steam, MIGreenPower Program to Reduce Environmental Impact

Published On March 21, 2023

For more than 100 years, Detroit Thermal has served many of Detroit’s buildings, including GM Renaissance Center, Huntington Place, Fox Theatre, Detroit Medical Center, Ford Field, The Fisher Building, the City of Detroit, and Wayne State University.

In 2021, the company enrolled in DTE’s MIGreenPower program. A voluntary renewable energy program, MIGreenPower enables DTE electric customers to attribute a greater percentage of their energy use to Michigan-made wind and solar beyond the 15% DTE already provides. Detroit Thermal’s goal is to gradually increase its MIGreenPower enrollment to attribute 100% of its electric usage to renewable resources by 2030.

SBN Detroit spoke to Todd Grzech, Detroit Thermal CEO, to learn more about how both steam heat and the company’s enrollment in the program impacts Detroit.

Q: Tell us more about Detroit Thermal.

A: Detroit Thermal is the district energy heating system for the city of Detroit. We’ve been delivering clean steam energy to the greater downtown Detroit area and services through an extensive underground network of steam piping for over 100 years.

Detroit Thermal was one of the original district energy systems in the country and

is a critical piece of Detroit’s energy infrastructure and we currently provide energy services to more than 100 buildings.

Q: Is Detroit Thermal considered an alternative utility to DTE?

A: Typically, we don’t see ourselves as that. We are more of an alternative to property owners providing their own heat energy, and we utilize DTE electric and natural gas to provide steam heat.

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Q: What are the benefits of steam over electricity?

A: Energy savings and cost savings.

From A BTU conversion standpoint per dollar, steam beats electric by a lot. Electric heat is very expensive. An analogy I like to use is the comparison between an incandescent light bulb and an LED. The amount of energy and the process required to turn the electricity to heat is much more complicated than steam heat – and there is waste in that.

Another thing with steam from a pressure perspective is that it finds its own lower pressure area so we don’t need mechanics or fans to move the heat. Think of a steam pot when you see the steam moving. Its energy alone transfers the heat. This is not the case with electric heat.

Q: Are you serving both older buildings and new builds?

A: Yes.

In Detroit, older buildings like the Fisher and Cadillac Place are piped for steam and have radiators that are designed for steam heat.

Newer buildings are using hot water to create steam. A great example is Bedrock’s new Hudson’s site. It is connected to our underground system. The building is piped to carry hot water throughout. Steam heats the water, and the water moves through the piping to heat the spaces. It’s a closed-loop system in that the same water continues to be heated, then moves through the pipes, which is very efficient.

Q: What are the challenges/barriers to entry when it comes to using Detroit Thermal for steam heat? 

A: The main challenge is geography. Where a building is located in relationship to our underground system. If it’s close to the system, it’s usually relatively easy to connect. If the building is too far away, it might be cost-prohibitive to run a pipe to connect just one building.

When it comes to our infrastructure it’s about density. The more buildings that can share a single line the more cost-effective it is.

There is a cluster of density in the central business district.  The underground piping system does a loop basically from Ford Field to Huntington Place around and back. The Hudson’s site is pretty close to that loop so we just needed to run about 100 feet of piping off of that system to connect it.  When you get farther away from the central business district piping might not make sense.

On the consumption side, steam heat gets interesting as well. When we look at office buildings where operators are looking to maintain a nice temperature for all workers, steam heat is very effective. On the multifamily and apartment side, it’s desirable to have a unit in each space that can be metered and billed. You can’t do that with steam heat.

Q: Is the steam used for heat only, or are there other uses within the buildings and businesses?

A: It is used largely for heat but, yes, there are other uses.

Some entities use steam for pressure, such as breweries.  Russell’s Pharmacy in the Fisher Building uses it for its pharmaceutical processes. Hospitals use it for the sterilization of equipment. Restaurants can use it to clean dishes.

Q: In 2021, Detroit Thermal enrolled in DTE’s MIGreenPower program and is gradually increasing its MIGreenPower enrollment to attribute 100% of its electric usage to renewable resources by 2030. The company’s commitment is said to ultimately offset the carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from over 1,000 passenger vehicles driven for a year. Can you tell me how this works?

A: Basically, we pay a premium today to support DTE’s development of solar energy and wind farms. With growth here, these sources become less expensive, and over time dollars are spread further to reach 100% of the electrical supply.

Q: Is this an accelerator for Detroit Thermal toward your goals to reduce carbon footprint and or switch to 100% renewable energy?

A: Yes, it is in line with our overall goals to reduce our carbon emissions footprint. We are on the path right path to do so as DTE defined the program.

Q:How do you think this enrollment and the overall work you are doing make an energy impact on the City of Detroit and the overall region?

A: I think, really, all companies in Detroit are working hard toward reducing energy consumption.

From an energy consumption perspective, we consider ourselves to be like a co-op. if we are making energy improvements everybody gets the benefit – not only the company that is doing that locally. So, as we continue to work with customers to determine methodologies for creating heat energy the whole community gets that benefit.

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Currently, we have these different development pockets – Bedrock, Olympia, the Hospital District, Wayne State, etc. They each have their own energy plans to become greener. But they are working individually. If we all work together, we can improve efficiencies and everybody gets the benefits. There is a greater good with a greater number.

Additionally, being part of a network provides a level of security around the ability to continually heat the buildings. There is a reliability factor that comes from a part of the infrastructure.

Q: What is the plan for the future for Detroit Thermal?

A: To continue the legacy of 100 years of heating Detroit but using more innovative technology that we have and that is becoming available.

Steam heat is needed to support the revitalization of Detroit. It’s part of the choices toward a greener future.


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