Energy Waste the Size of Japan

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Here is a startling fact: US power plants waste more energy than many countries use, including advanced economies like that of Japan. The wasted energy is in the form of heat thrown off when power plants produce electricity.

This is one of the points being brought to light by the International District Energy Association (IDEA), as it promotes new federal incentives for heat efficiency.

While the US is focusing on cleaning up its electricity supply, it tends to ignore heat energy, even though it represents 31% of the energy we use, particularly to heat and cool buildings, warm water, and manufacture products.

IDEA is a group that promotes district energy and cogeneration (also called combined heat and power). These systems recycle heat waste for productive purposes. For example, a cogeneration plant might provide electricity to the grid and then recycle the wasted heat from the system into steam for use by a nearby factory. District energy systems often incorporate cogeneration. They supply water or steam to multiple buildings for space heating, domestic hot water, air conditioning and industrial processes.

IDEA, along with several environmental and efficiency groups, want Congress to approve a bill that will make available to heat the kind of incentives now given to clean forms of electricity. To that end, they are backing the Thermal Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act (S.3636), a bipartisan effort introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.)

The bill would create federal production tax incentives for heat energy, much like those that have spurred the wind and solar industries in the US. It also would expand tax-exempt bonds for the systems and reauthorize and broaden certain grants.

“The economic and environmental costs of the BP Gulf disaster are yet to be tallied, and the hurdles to comprehensive climate legislation are daunting. That’s why we must act now to implement policies that reduce fossil fuel consumption using proven clean technologies like district energy and combined heat and power,” said Rob Thornton, IDEA president, in a July 22 letter to US Senate leaders.

With today’s introduction of a smart grid, we are seeing many new systems and gadgets that promise energy savings. Industry insiders understandably eye them with skepticism; many of these technologies are untried. However, cogeneration and district energy are old ideas, decades old, and proven many times over. The US already has about 2,900 district energy systems and about 3,500 cogeneration plants. Still cogeneration represents only 8% to 9% of US electric capacity.

Cogeneration and district energy face the same problem as other capital intensive projects today. High upfront costs and reticent lenders make it hard to develop new projects.

Incentives do help spur these technologies. When the state of Connecticut began offering grants for cogeneration a few years ago, businesses and institutions jumped at the opportunity and quickly added installations totaling several hundred megawatts.

IDEA wants the Senate to incorporate heat energy incentives into any energy legislation that might pass this year. But it appears increasingly unlikely that a major energy bill will make it through Congress. The US may continue to throw away several countries worth of energy for some time.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

photo: rightee

About Author

Elisa Wood is an editor at EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

  • http://twitter.com/EDFClimate411 EDFClimate411

    International District Energy Assoc. promotes new federal incentives for heat efficiency for U.S. power plants. http://ow.ly/2fGQ1

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  • http://2greenenergy.com Craig Shields

    Another great article by Ms. Wood. Energy loss to thermal is a huge challenge that is endemic to traditional power plants, and it the result of most of the energy lost in internal combustion engines as well. Of course, many of the direct applications of geothermal heat for commercial and residential point up how cogeneration might be applied.

    I’m inclined to believe however that our nation would be better served by devoting those incentive dollars – along with a huge chunk shifted from the currently vast dirty fuel subsidies – to the construction of a proven and improving total solution: distributed CSP. With the innovation recently made by Google in solar thermal mirrors potentially bringing the cost of construction down by half, and the price per kWh down to about a nickel, this is a viable solution, not just to the issue that 26.7% of our energy consumption is lost to heat in inefficient conversion from chemical energy**, but also to our massive contribution to global CO2 via our dirty fuel power. Molten salt energy storage systems have effectively resolved the baseload debate to allow a mere hundred square miles or so of these solar thermal plants to be distributed across our Sunbelt as a very safe, clean, efficient and very scalable replacement for our currently dirty and wasteful generation portfolio.

    Here’s a little more on my thinking in the CSP arena:

    http://2greenenergy.com/solar-thermal-leader/2534/

    Even Germany is calculated to have 1000 kWh per square meter streaming in on it every day. It seems to me that our available solar energy feed across the nation at about the 35th parallel must far exceed that – we just need to plug in, folks.

    Craig Shield, Editor, 2GreenEnergy.com, and author, Renewable Energy – Facts and Fantasies (2010)

    **See chart: http://www.technologyreview.com/files/40065/May10%20Graphiti.pdf