Saturday, November 10, 2007

Untapped Energy Solutions: Co-Generation

With a little ingenuity and some rethinking of the centralized infrastructures that dominate power distribution in the U.S., we could go a long way toward both easing climate change threats and stretching our energy resources. Waste and inefficiency are unforgivable at this stage of our accelerating descent into energy hell. This is the persepctive underlying Bill McKibben's latest article in Orion Magazine, The Unsung Solution, which explores the benefits of tapping waste heat from manufacturing processes to generate power.

McKibben profiles a firm, Recycled Energy Development, quoting one of the principals, Sean Casten, who said:

“Let’s look at Florida. Here’s a Maxwell House coffee roaster in Duval County. They’re roasting beans, so all that heat has to go somewhere. About twelve megawatts’ worth of potential electricity is going up the stack. Basically, there’s a network of tubes with water in them. The heat would hit one side of it, produce steam, and we’d use that to turn a turbine and generate electricity. It’s like any other boiler, just without a flame, because the heat is already there.”

This is not a poorly understood emerging technology that requires vast development resources and risky investment strategies. Co-generation techniques have been in use for decades and are a proven, successful means of making maximum benefit of available power resources. The article continues:

Does that sound suspiciously pie-in-the-sky? Casten can drive a few miles from his Chicago office to an East Chicago plant run by Mittal Steel. A few years ago, a predecessor energy-recycling company installed this kind of equipment on the smokestacks of the plant’s coke ovens. In 2004, this single steel plant generated roughly the same amount of clean energy as was produced by all of the grid-connected solar collectors throughout the world. Casten’s company estimates that recycling waste heat from factories alone could produce 14 percent of the electric power the U.S. now uses. If you took much the same approach to electric generating stations you could, says Casten, conceivably produce the same amount of energy we use now with half the fossil fuel.

Let’s cut the numbers in half to account for corporate enthusiasm. Hell, let’s cut them in half again. You’re still talking about one of the most effective ways to cut carbon emissions that we’ve got, a mature technology ready to go. You’re talking about a recycling project infinitely more important than all that paper we’ve been bundling and glass we’ve been rinsing for the last two decades. Why isn’t it happening everywhere? The first answer, says Casten, is that very few companies spend much time thinking about their waste heat. “How much time do you think about the useful things you could be doing with your urine?” asks Casten. “The guy at the coffee roaster is spending all day focused on roasting coffee beans so they taste good.”

Laws governing the operation of electrical utilities, which in most communities are essentially monopolies, tend to protect the profits of the utilities above all else, McKibben asserts. In such an environment, change is difficult or impossible. Therein lies the rub. Our energy salvation may require restructuring the counter-productive regulations that have gotten us into the predicament we're in today. The solutions are available if we're smart enough to utilize them.