Oak Ridge National Laboratory put out an important report last Fall that you probably didn’t hear about. It’s not on solar, wind, or other sexy renewables technologies. But the technology can pack a great climate mitigation punch at a relatively low cost. It has been around over 100 years and is called co-generation or combined heat and power (CHP).
CHP is when a thermal power plant doubles as a source of heating and cooling. The application is often most successful in dense communities like a campus or a manufacturing center. Most thermal power plants create electricity by running a turbine at extreme heat and then let the waste heat vent off in a cooling tower. But CHP utilizes (recycles) that heat to provide the heating and air needs of their locale, as much as doubling the efficiency of fossil fuel combustion (getting efficiencies as high as 80% rather than ~40% in conventional plants).
The report shows that CHP is already a big player in the US energy system, providing ~12% of our electricity. And Oak Ridge scientists outline the potential to grow CHP’s share to 20% by 2030, eliminating a majority of expected GHG emission growth during the period and lowering energy bills. Many European countries have CHP shares above 20% already so such a deployment is not a gamble for our resources.
Both my undergraduate and graduate alma maters, UNC-Chapel Hill and Princeton, utilize cogeneration facilities run on coal and natural gas (respectively) for campus electricity and heat. These systems work exceedingly well at providing low-cost and relatively low-carbon energy in a reliable way. So it’s time for us to retrofit another 60 GW that Oak Ridge has already identified to help give other efficiency and renewables efforts the chance to really reduce our nation’s carbon emissions in the years ahead. Combining CHP and renewables efforts in the years ahead can prevent the need for new fossil fuel-fired thermal plants even as our population and economy grow.
Kudos to Oak Ridge National Laboratory for this important report! And here’s to the passage of comprehensive federal legislation (either a carbon tax or cap and trade system) that will make these efforts the right thing to do both morally and economically.