The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has released their report on the potential of combined heat and power (CHP) deployment in the U.S. and concludes that it is one of the “most proven and effective near-term energy options” available to reduce CO2 emissions, improve energy security, relieve grid congestion, make industry more competitive, and create green-collar jobs. It might even keep rates down and avoid the carbon tax thing bearing down to crush us.

CHP, or cogeneration, has been around in one form or another for over 100 years. Its proven technology, not speculative. Despite a proven track record, CHP remains underutilized and is one of the most compelling sources of energy efficiency that could, with even modest investments, move grid generation strongly forward with much larger output, greater energy security and a cleaner environment. Ramping up CHP to account for 20% of US electricity capacity as several European countries have already achieved would be equivalent to the CO2 savings of taking 154 million cars off the road. It’s a huge efficiency potential that way exceeds any proposals involving electric charging for the transport fleet.

U.S. CHP sites number over 3,300 and production now stands at 85 gigawatts, almost 9 percent of total US capacity. In 2006 CHP produced 506 billion Kilowatt Hours (kWh) of electricity, more than 12 percent of total 2006 U.S. power generation. Its here and there is a lot more where than came from. Note that 8% is the oft quoted needed production to make a the huge shift to electric drive in the U.S. transport fleet. Adding the cogeneration equipment and getting it on line would be the basic investment to power most of the personal transportation Americans have come to rely on, and need to function in the existing home, employment, and business location pattern.

So what’s standing in the way? Well, demand growth isn’t there and has been shrinking slightly over 2008. In broad brush strokes, challenges include unfamiliarity with CHP, technology opportunities and limitations, utility business management practices, regulatory ignorance or ambiguity, environmental permitting approaches that fail to acknowledge and reward the energy efficiency and emissions benefits, uneven Federal, state and local tax treatments, and the interconnection requirements, processes, and fair enforcement of regulations in a wide range of legal matters.

Here’s a thought to keep in mind from the report, “The energy lost in the United States from lost heat in the utility sector is greater than the total energy use of Japan.” Most US electric generation does not make use of the waste heat. As a result, the average efficiency of utility generation has remained at roughly 34 percent since the 1960s. It’s a use factor that can be more than doubled.

Fuel In to Energy Out

Fuel In to Energy Out

Just what is CHP? Its also called cogeneration, the concurrent production of electricity or mechanical power and useful thermal energy (heating and/or cooling) from a single source of energy. An example would be a fission reactor making steam to drive turbines first and the remaining energy used to drive other power generation techniques. CHP can also be a type of distributed generation, which, unlike the fission reactor station, is located at or near the point of consumption. Instead of purchasing electricity from a local utility and then burning fuel in a furnace or boiler to produce thermal energy, consumers use CHP to provide these energy services in one energy-efficient step. That should be a practical and government incentive program step for many more large users in the U.S. economy.

CHP technology can be deployed quickly, cost-effectively, and with very few geographic limitations. CHP can use a variety of fuels, both fossil- and renewable-based. It has been employed for many years, mostly in industrial, large commercial, and institutional applications. The hardware is already out there.

The use of capital and consumer rate impacts and the quick and speedy viability of widespread CHP deployment should put the technology at the forefront of practical alternative energy solutions with wind, solar, clean coal, biofuels, and nuclear power. Clear synergies exist between CHP and most other technologies that dominate the energy and environmental policy dialogue in the U.S. today.

With the media and press leading the vocabulary of choice for politicians and then to the population with such catchy stuff like “clean coal” and other short cuts that undermine actual understanding, “Combined Heat and Power” “Cogeneration” and other acronyms need pushed by those of us in the blog area. Take a look at the report. Really, it’s an easy read with a lot of graphic material, charts and such.

Just keep in mind; we’re losing much more than 60% of our energy from electrical generation fuels out to the atmosphere and off into space. It’s well with our reach with existing technology to more than double output for the same fuel charges. But until public understanding evolves to political pressure and electric rate resistance, not much will happen. It should a much more important matter from capital investors to environmentalists – perhaps its the only thing they have in common.


2 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on December 11, 2008 11:11 AM

    Very important topic!

    Any environmentalist who doesn’t make CHP and heat recovery their number one priority is just part of the problem.

    Japanese utilities are supplying fuel cell CHP systems for households as an energy-saving tactic.

    Industrial heat recovery is a type of “retrofit” cogeneration for large industrial processes that use huge amounts of heat, but rarely generate power. I like to distinguish designed CHP from retrofit or “ad hoc” CHP (heat recovery), but it may be a distinction without a difference.

  2. miggs on December 12, 2008 10:50 AM

    Glad you’re posting on this great study. I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a leading CHP firm founded by Tom Casten. I agree with Al Fin that CHP should be distinguished from waste heat recovery, mainly because of the difference between capturing what’s already there vs. creating a new energy system from scratch. What’s amazing is just how much potential there is in energy recycling (our term to cover both kinds) nationwide. The environmental community should be talking about it a lot more.

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