National Lab Pushes Combined Heat and Power

A new report from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory touts the potential of combined heat and power systems for large and small industrial, commercial and residential buildings to increase energy efficiency and cut emissions of carbon dioxide in the U.S. The Oak Ridge lab is part of a network of 21 research centers backed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

According to the report, boosting the use of combined heat and power, or CHP, to 20 percent of generating capacity in the U.S. by 2030 would save 5.3 quadrillion British thermal units of fuel annually, the equivalent of nearly half the total energy currently consumed by U.S. households. The lab said there would also be a 60 percent reduction of the projected increase in carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking 154 million cars off the road. The report points out that several European countries have already exceeded that 20 percent level of CHP use.

Also known as cogeneration, CHP is the simultaneous production of electricity and heat from a single fuel source such as natural gas, biomass, biogas, coal, waste heat, or oil. The concept, which has been around for more than 100 years, is inherently more efficient than the separate generation of electricity from power plants and thermal energy from boilers or other heating equipment.

The size of CHP systems can range from 5 kilowatts for a single-family home to several hundred megawatts for a district heating project or large industrial site, where the continuous thermal demand leads to the most efficient use of the system. The generating capacity of CHP in the U.S. now stands at 85 gigawatts, or almost 9 percent of total capacity, according to the report. Most of that use is in industrial applications, providing power and steam to large industries such as chemical, paper, refining, food processing and metals manufacturing.

In March, UK utility Scottish and Southern Energy announced a deal with fuel cell company Intelligent Energy, also based in the UK, to develop fuel cell-based CHP systems for the residential and commercial markets.

Giving a boost to the number of CHP systems in the U.S. could generate $234 billion in new investments, according to the Oak Ridge lab, and create nearly 1 million new jobs. But the report said there are some significant hurdles as well, including environmental permitting approaches that it said do not acknowledge and reward the energy efficiency and emissions benefits.

Permitting and building code are problems for many innovative building solutions, and the lab said overcoming those challenges will take a broad approach, involving policy, regulatory, and technical solutions, some of which have already been achieved in the EU. The report said the EU has developed a cogeneration directive that includes feed-in tariffs, grants and loans, and tax incentives.