As the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, known as Rio+20, is producing mild expectations and there is still no promise of a global agreement on reducing the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, many grassroots activists and green-minded business leaders are taking efforts into their own hands. The Beyond Coal campaign, for example, has prevented 166 coal-fired power plants from breaking ground without any national legislation. According to Mother Jones, their successes have resulted in 654 million fewer metric tons of carbon being released, or 9.5 percent of U.S. emissions, which rivals by some measures what cap and trade could have done to reduce emissions. And more and more people and factories around the world are investing in cogenerating power, or combined heat and power (CHP), another small-scale effort to control emissions and increase efficiency. This promising technology, being driven mostly by individuals and businesses, deserves some investigation.
CHP doesn't get much attention, even among the green energy crowd in America, because it is mostly a European phenomenon. Eastern Europe gets almost one-fifth of its energy production from CHP and Germany gets almost 13 percent from the source. Denmark is far and away the leader in CHP, getting more than half of its electricity from cogeneration. In the U.S., in contrast, CHP makes up 8 percent of power production and is mostly found in industry. The EPA does have a Combined Heat and Power Partnership, so there is some higher level work being done to promote the technology, but awareness is low.
The way CHP works is quite simple. It takes advantage of usually wasted heat to turn turbines that generate electricity to be used in either other industrial capacities or to be fed to nearby buildings. The process holds great promise for increased efficiency because energy is no longer wasted, but rather put to work. As Amory Lovins and his colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute note in Reinventing Fire, "Tripling U.S. CHP capacity to 240 GW would cut America's total CO2 emissions by 12%." Lovins estimates that wide adoption of CHP -- expanding it from 78 GW to 187 GW -- could cut back on energy used for industry by 30 percent, or 11 percent of total energy.
While global political leaders deal with economic issues that have overshadowed the environmental and energy problems, savvy business leaders and activists can push for CHP. It has benefits for business because it can save money and for the environment because it can replace a good deal of coal-fired electricity. Yet CHP has many applications beyond industry. Micro-CHP, based on the same principle of burning gas to generate electricity and heat, is gaining traction with home owners. The idea is for heat from the combustion process to warm hot water heaters and interior rooms and for the electricity to be used for appliances. Some Micro-CHP is also coupled with net metering, whereby energy not being used can be sold back to the grid or to other residences.
Cogeneration is also being undertaken with alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar. These onsite thermal generators work much the same way as regular CHP, by reusing what would otherwise be wasted heat. Some tap into the spirit of combined energy generation by adding heat-capturing features to photovoltaic technologies. Additionally, there are combined cooling, heating, and power units (CCHP), which also provide cooling needs. This triple combination is referred to as trigeneration.
Small steps toward the goal of sustainability and better technology are often the most tedious when one realizes much more could be done with public attention and resources. While there is good news about total investment in renewable energy surging by 17 percent in 2011 to $257 billion, efforts to expand less sexy, but equally effective technologies like CHP are likely to be incremental. It will take adoption by forward-thinking businesses and individuals to bring CHP to scale. Yet the impact, like that of the Beyond Coal campaign and other non-governmental efforts, could be tremendous.