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CHP: Not the Brad and Jen of Energy, but….

I hesitate to start this blog with the words “combined heat and power.” You might stop reading.

Okay, so it’s not the Brad and Jen of energy. (That would be solar and wind.) But what it lacks in glamour, it makes up for in constancy and results. It’s an old guy, been around for about a century. And while its name might not sound green, it offers an extraordinarily efficient way to energize buildings.

About once a year, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy issues findings that raise the profile of combined heat and power, or CHP, for at least a couple of days.

Why bother? Because despite its ponderous name, CHP is a “Wow” approach to energy, one that people should talk about at parties as much as they do solar these days.

CHP units, often used at universities, hospitals and factories, put to good use the waste heat created in producing electricity. Usually, we just let this heat vanish into the sky. But CHP, a form of distributed generation, reuses the byproduct to heat and cool buildings or assist in industrial processes. CHP can produce energy twice as efficiently as a typical centralized power plant because it provides two energy sources from one fuel. We know it works because, as ACEEE points out, CHP “has been cleanly and quietly providing over 12% of U.S. electricity.”

If it’s so good, why don’t we use more of it? The US is trying – at least some areas of the country.

“CHP markets differ considerably among states,” said Anna Chittum, ACEEE senior policy analyst and lead author of ACEEE’s September 28 report ‘Challenges Facing Combined Heat and Power Today: A State-by-State Assessment.’

Do you live in a pro-CHP state? Not if you’re in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

You do, if you’re in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

(You can find an analysis of your state’s CHP markets and policies here.)

CHP’s woes are not simply a result of bad public policy. Local market factors, utility electricity prices and other influences come into play, not the least of which is today’s stalled economy.

Utilities sometimes discourage CHP development because CHP reduces their sales by letting utility customers produce all or part of their own energy. In addition, CHP tends to be “homeless” in the world of energy regulation and advocacy, according to ACEEE. No big, powerful organization devotes itself to CHP. It has no equivalent to the American Wind Energy Association or the Solar Energy Industries Association. (But you can find information on CHP here and here.)

“CHP is not well understood by regulators, not well-suited for renewable energy programs – because it often is fueled by non-renewable fuels – and too expensive for most short-term energy efficiency programs – because its payback period is long and its upfront costs high compared to many other efficiency measures,” said ACEEE. “Consequently, few state administrations or lawmakers have taken up the cause of CHP.”

So CHP has a public relations problem. It’s not only no Brad and Jen, but it also is downright homeless. Let’s start a trend to get CHP off the street. Open up a conversation at a party with, “Hey, how about that combined heat and power…”

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.

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3 comments on “CHP: Not the Brad and Jen of Energy, but….

Thanks Elisa for raising awareness about CHP. It has tremendous potential if it scales down. I recently renovated my home and tried to find micro CHP, such as what is used often in Japan, to include in the design. Only one of the HVAC suppliers at 2 major Philadelphia home and building shows even knew what it was. Freewatt has an interesting system, but as of last year the costs are still prohibitive for use in my situation. More heat-required days help the business case, as do higher $/kWh. And if I could justify it, it is clear that I would be totally on my own for servicing and maintaining it.

BTW, I am in Pennsylvania and find the state on both your pro- and non-pro-CHP lists — which ironically describes my situation well.

Thanks for bringing CHP to the frontscene, it deserves it as you notes…

A while ago I blogged about a book “Crossing the Energy Divide” by Robert and Edward Ayres.

There, I learned that the potential capacity of CHP in the US alone is of 135 GW. that’s a lot of capacity…

Here is a link to good background on CHP: When combined with district energy systems, CHP is the low-hanging fruit on the energy efficiency tree. Examples of high-efficiency (well over 70% efficiency) systems are in operation at University of Texas at Austin, Princeton University, Fort Bragg, University of Massachusetts at Amherst and many more “campus” settings throughout the U.S. CHP is used widely to use waste heat to provide steam for turbine generators that generate electricity on-site for high-heat operations such as lumber mills and industrial kilns around the world.

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