Downtowners cool and heat with this company's steam

One on one

June 10, 1991

One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Morris O. Hill was named president last month of Baltimore Thermal Energy Corp., the company that has owned and operated Baltimore's downtown steam company since 1985. The Baltimore operation is owned by United Thermal Corp. of New York. Hill, who has been with the parent company since 1985, was named general manager of Baltimore Thermal in 1987.

Q. For people who might not be familiar with the company other than the steam they see rising from the city streets, can you tell me a little bit about what you do?

A. The company supplies steam for heating, hot water, air conditioning and other processes to about 400 customers in downtown Baltimore.

Q. What do the customers actually do with the steam?

A. They use it to heat their buildings in the winter, run air conditioners in the summer, and produce hot water year round.

Q. In terms of heating, does a customer actually pipe your steam through their radiators?

A. It would be blown through a radiator or a series of pipes over which they circulate the air that is distributed through the building.

Q. And air conditioning. That surprises me. How do you cool with hot steam?

A. Well, I think the simplest way to answer that is that your air conditioner in your home uses electricity to run a circular fan. Instead of electricity, assume that steam is driving that fan. In the downtown area, a little quirk of that or a little difference, is that we do use absorbers, which is a chemical process. Lithium bromide is used as a mechanism whereby it will be the chemical that will cool the water. The steam is used to actually boil off the water that gets trapped in the lithium bromide. So, the steam comes into the building, heats lithium bromide. The lithium bromide becomes more concentrated, water free, and then the hot water comes back and is cooled by absorption.

Q. So hot steam comes in one end, cool water comes out the other end, and you can blow air across the cool water in the pipes?

A. Certainly, certainly. Then it becomes a standard air conditioner.

Q. You mentioned there are other uses for the steam besides heating and cooling?

A. Yeah. Hot water. And hospital sterilization. And there's the cooking in hospitals and in restaurants. There's humidification.

Q. Where does the steam actually come from?

A. We derive our steam from the Bresco trash plant and two gas-fired steam plants that we own.

Q. Bresco burns trash and makes steam?

A. Yes. We then produce what steam we can't get from them at our own gas-fired boiler plants, one located in the Spring Gardens area. We also have another plant sitting on the corner of Camden and Eutaw, right across from the new stadium, which we activate during the winter when our demand is high. That plant will be replaced next year by a new permanent plant up on Saratoga Street. This came about because of the sale of our old Camden plant that used to sit on what is now second base of the new stadium.

Q. How you get the steam to the customers?

A. Fifteen miles of buried pipeline. We have main trunk pipelines leaving each one of our plants, and then it starts spidering off into the area of downtown Baltimore. We have two pressure systems, with about 50 pounds and another of about 150. Our main trunk pipe is 24 inches across. The smallest main trunk is about 6 inches. Those run anywhere from 6 feet down to as much as 25 feet under ground. . . . They're ordinary black iron pipe -- carbon steel -- and encased in insulation material and then encased in concrete.

Q. Is this mostly the original piping?

A. Most of it is, yes. If you operate a steam system properly, pipes can last almost indefinitely.

Q. And what's the temperature of the steam?

A. The temperature is about 350 degrees.

Q. How many employees do you have?

A. We have 70 employees here.

Q. What's the outlook? We have quotes from company officials going back a couple of years boasting about doubling the revenues and adding new customers, but your customer base has been about 400 since you acquired it.

A. In January, we acquired the Central Avenue system, a small distribution and steam generating system run by the Housing Authority of Baltimore, and that's going to add over the course of the next three years roughly 300 to 350 million pounds of $H additional steam sales and roughly 3.5 to 4 million dollars of revenue. That will supply steam to five of the major housing developments. Our contract also requires us to supply steam to Broadway Towers, to Monument East Tower and to the Latrobe Homes which sit north of the system. That will add roughly $5 million to our revenues. We have also acquired contracts to supply steam to the City Jail and the state penitentiary. These two will add revenues of about $2 million a year. To hook up all of this new business will require rather expensive pipelines. For example, the City Jail will require about a $9 million pipeline.

Q. What will be the bottom line?

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