Harvard Acquires Local Steam Plant

Harvard announced last Friday its purchase of the Blackstone energy plant, a steam and one-time electricity-producing plant located on the corner of Memorial Drive and Western Avenue.

A 1997 law required NSTAR, the electric and gas distribution company, to sell off the Blackstone plant. The plant produces about 70 to 80 percent of Harvard’s steam, which is used to heat the University.

The law mandated that electricity-distribution companies divest themselves of electricity-producing facilities.

The plant, for which Harvard paid $14.6 million, has not produced electricity since November 2001, and its equipment for that is “old and inefficient,” according to NSTAR spokesperson Mike Monahan. Harvard negotiated right of “first offer” on the plant as part of its 1992 contract with NSTAR.

The plant produces steam by burning oil and is primarily used for heating Harvard’s buildings. The steam is distributed throughout the campus by a series of underground tunnels.


With the plant comes a fair amount of underutilized real estate—a rarity in Cambridge—raising eyebrows in the Riverside neighborhood, home to the plant and to a long and difficult relationship with the University that put up such hated buildings as Peabody Terrace and Mather Towers.

This month, the neighborhood is putting finishing touches on more than a year of work on new zoning, which activists hope will revitalize the neigborhood and restrict undesired growth, particularly on the Harvard front. The zoning changes the site to a residential zone and restricts all new buildings to a maximum height of 24 feet—less than a third of what is currently permitted.

Cob Carlson, a member of the Riverside Study Committee, said the steam plant purchase was expected, but that he would have liked more notice from Harvard about its intentions with the plant.

“I think Harvard Planning and Real Estate holds their cards close to their chest,” Carlson said. “I don’t know whether it will change the [zoning] recommendations or not.”

Carlson said that he expects Harvard to keep its promise to clean up the plant—which he said Associate Vice President for Harvard Planning and Real Estate Kathy Spiegelman made at a community meeting.

He added that he would not hesitate to call in independent monitors to check on the plant.

Thomas E. Vautin, Harvard’s associate vice president for facilities and environmental services, said Harvard currently has no plans for using the site, but simply purchased it due to the University’s interest in keeping control over its steam.

“The goal here is to make sure we have enough heat,” Vautin said, adding that any long-term plans would have to come after the next stage, which includes a “due diligence process,” in which Harvard will inspect the facility, as well as a sign-off from the state.

This is not the first time the University has ventured into the utilities business. The University built and operated from 1985 to 1998 the Medical Area Total Energy Plant (MATEP), which supplied steam, electricity and chilled water to Harvard’s Longwood Campus and to many surrounding buildings.

MATEP was controversial and widely regarded as a failure, as Harvard paid more than $350 million to build the plant and sold it for $147 million.

When MATEP was sold, administrators questioned whether Harvard had any place getting into the energy business.

“Whatever our capacities are as a University, they do not really extend to great sophistication to running energy plants in a highly deregulated environment,” said then-University President Neil L. Rudenstine in a 1998 interview.

But Vautin said Harvard has learned its lesson from the MATEP fiasco and will seek to find an independent contractor to run the plant.

“Harvard only received about 20 percent of the energy that came out of MATEP,” Vautin said. “In this case it’s just the opposite.”

—Staff writer Lauren R. Dorgan can be reached at