US power companies generate eight percent of their total energy for free. That's because they use waste heat from the power production process and turn it into more electricity. The technique is known as combined-heat-and-power (CHP) and there is a great opportunity for CHP to dramatically increase within a short space of time.
A recent report by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) termed CHP as among the top ‘most promising’ options to increase energy efficiency in the US. The Tennessee laboratory’s report, entitled Combined Heat and Power: Effective Energy Solutions for a Sustainable Future, points out that is is a massive opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy generation costs. What’s more, installing CHP also will help the development of green-collar jobs. In addition, virtually all the extra energy is used on-site, offering, among other benefits, an opportunity to unclog grid congestion.
Even though the benefits are obvious the technology is underrepresented, almost forgotten. Most power plants can improve the efficiency of their fuel by about 75% but few are looking into this yet because the CHP technology has a lot of competition from other alternative energy sources promising to achieve the low carbon economy.
The trick with CHP is that through the capture and utilization of waste heat produced during the power generation process the systems are in need of less fuel than would otherwise be required to operate separate heating and power systems. If all US power plants would run CHP technology, they’d generate so much additional energy that it could power the whole of Japan, according to another report on the topic by Worldwatch Institute entitled “Low-Carbon Energy: A Roadmap.”
The Europeans are a little more advanced in applying the technology. Eleven percent of Europe’s total power supplies is generated this way. And policymakers are examining ways to double this level, according to Claude Turmes, a European member of Parliament who is advocating strong action on both energy efficiency and renewables. Finland and Denmark obtain 40 percent to 50 percent of their energy needs from CHP systems.
So what are the chances that US companies will rise to the challenge and also install CHP on a large scale? For the time being the action here is relatively limited. A report on BiomassMagazine indicates that a relatively young company called Virtual Media Holdings Inc. has gone public last December with plans to install CHP in a Californian power plant. It’s gained approval from the California South Coast Air Quality Management District, the pollution control agency.
The ORNL estimates that by 2030 up to 20 percent of all US power can come from CHP sources. And the news gets even better - the emissions reductions achieved would reach as much as 60 percent. And new jobs created under this scenario would total 1 million. What will likely slow enthusiasm for the technology is its relative obscurity.