Guest post by Thomas Fuller
Although I’m a big fan of solar power and think it has a bright future, I must admit that our focus on the Big Three renewable energy sources–solar, wind and biofuels–has been a wasted opportunity, if not a waste of money.
The orientation of our policies to favor the adoption of The Big Three have led to our ignoring proven technologies that could have had an immediate impact and lessened not only our emissions, but reduced our gas bills as well.
The biggest example is with combined heat and power (CHP), also known as cogeneration. Amazingly, this technology that many people have never heard of produces 9% of the world’s primary energy. Here in the States it produces 7% of our energy. But in countries like Finland and Denmark, it produces up to 40% of all energy.
CHP is the simplest idea in the world. A typical power plant producing electricity wastes about 65% of the fuel it burns. CHP plants capture the heat released and put it to good work, heating buildings or even cooling them with the right configuration. It takes the efficiency of the plant from 35% up to as much as 80% in some cases. The very first power plant built in America was a CHP plant, built in New York. Continuing in that tradition, New York’s Con Edison heats 100,000 buildings with district heating powered by CHP.
CHP gets little attention from environmentalists, because it is powered (mostly) by fossil fuels. Most new facilities use natural gas for fuel, but CHP is pretty agnostic about fuel. I say mostly because there are new CHP plants being fueled by wood pellets, which (Ta-da!) makes it renewable.
But we produce less energy today from CHP than we did ten years ago. If we had focused on CHP instead of wind power (which is really starting to annoy me–and a lot of others, I think), and had built our capacity to the level of some Nordic countries, we would already today be close to the level of emission reductions President Obama promised the world we’d reach by 2020. And there’s a whole lot of money we wouldn’t have spent on fuel that we could have spent on other things.
CHP won’t solve all our problems. It is more economically viable in colder regions with expensive energy prices that make the capital investment more attractive, so unless we subsidized it the way we do solar and wind take-up would be slower than ideal. But in the U.S. it is not currently treated like other energy efficiency and renewable energy schemes, with tax breaks and feed-in tariffs and obligated purchases.
So the technology that we know works well, has done wonders in other parts of the world, and could make an immediate difference to our pocketbooks and our emissions is being neglected. While wind turbines are getting more expensive, taking more land and generally turning into a nuisance.
Where are our priorities?