I just got done reading some extremely eye-opening stuff on cogeneration and power recycling. Wait, wait, keep reading! I promise it’s more interesting than it sounds.

Most of all, it’s another example of a great, low-cost, low-impact way to address the energy/climate crisis that doesn’t get nearly the hype it deserves (perhaps because it’s not backed by an industry that can afford to buy high-profile supporters).

The paper I read is from an unpublished book chapter, so I won’t quote directly. And I won’t get into the technical weeds, since I’m likely to botch something. Instead let me just convey some of the high-level take-home points:

  • Power plants and manufacturing facilities discard (that is, waste) a great deal of their energy input. In fact, the U.S. electric-power generation system discards two-thirds of its energy as waste on average — a grim statistic that has not changed in 45 years. Tons and tons of fossil-fuel energy is simply going up in smoke, as it were.
  • This waste energy can be captured and used to create heat or electricity, if the facilities are located in close proximity to end users.
  • Recycling all this wasted energy could cut the amount of fossil fuels burned for electricity generation in the U.S. in half (and cut total fossil-fuel use by 15%).
  • Recycling waste energy saves money, reduces air pollution, and mitigates climate change. And because it is labor intensive (as opposed to fossil-fuel intensive), it creates jobs.
  • Recycling waste energy is cleaner than nuclear or clean coal, and more cost-effective than wind or solar.
  • The reason energy recycling is not more common has to do with an old, outmoded regulatory regime that heavily militates in favor of large-scale, centralized power-production plants, and power utilities that vigorously defend their monopoly protection. It has nothing to do with the "free market."

So, that’s the big stuff. Make a note. Write your local legislator.

Here’s an example:

The Cokenergy plant on Lake Michigan makes blast furnace coke. Attached to the coke plant is a Primary Energy recycling plant. It takes the Cokenergy plant’s hot coke-oven exhaust, converts it into 90 MW of electricity and 500,000 pounds of steam, and sells it to the adjacent Harbor Works steel plant.

In other words, it takes waste energy from one facility and transforms it into usable energy for another. Since all the power in question would have been wasted, this energy is essentially a freebie — no new fossil fuel burned, no new air pollution created, no new GHG emissions. Three amazing stats:

  • The energy sold to the steel plant costs less than half the price of power from the local utility.
  • In 2004, this one energy recycling plant produced as much energy as all the solar collectors in the world combined.
  • Every dollar invested in this plant produced 20 times more clean energy than a dollar invested in solar collectors, and five times more than a dollar invested in wind.

There’s lots more to discuss about this stuff, but I’ll save it for a follow-up post.