Thomas CastenDR: The conservative argument on global warming is that CO2 emissions are a good indicator of economic activity. They rise and fall together. Thus, fighting global warming is a secret UN plot to hobble the American economy relative to China and India. That’s Inhofe’s theory, anyway.

TC: He’s the only elected official in Washington that might possibly be stupider than the man in the White House.

Even people that very much want to do something about global warming make the mistake of thinking that carbon is like any other pollutant. With the Clean Air Act, the criteria pollutants have no value, so taking those things out adds costs. You’re running a process that puts out a lot of sulphur dioxide, it adds cost to put scrubbers on the back of that. If an American manufacturer has to comply with all of these standards, and a Chinese manufacturer doesn’t, then the American manufacturer is disadvantaged — there is some truth to that.

Carbon is totally different. Carbon costs you money to make. There is no way to filter the carbon out, or to chemically change it, or to do anything on the back end that doesn’t take more energy than you’re saving. The way you take carbon out is to not burn as much fuel. It’s efficiency.

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Recycled energy is simply the most glaring inefficiency. The low-hanging fruit is to take the energy that’s thrown away in the electric industry and to use it to displace boiler fuel, and to take the energy that’s thrown away in the industrial world and make electricity.

DR: The political powers that be, and the corporate powers that be, seem obsessed with finding alternative forms of massive, centralized power generation. Why?

TC: When we initially started learning how to make electric power, the plants were ugly. You had carts of coal coming in, guys shoveling coal with no dust collection, dirty black plumes. Kids got rickets because there wasn’t enough sun getting through the air. So we said, get this stuff out of sight! After that went on for two or three generations, the fuels changed, the technologies changed, the science changed. I have built power plants under the lobby of a major office building in New York — 11 West 42nd Street. We’ve learned how to control the noise, there’s no smoke, there’s no dust, there’s nothing.

The second part is, the public absolutely demands reliable electricity. The government is scared to death of monkeying with it. They feel like they’re taking an enormous bet if they do anything, so their tendency is to go to the big stuff — and of course the providers of the big stuff are quick to tell them that that other stuff is toys.

DR: People have trouble getting their heads around the idea of multiple, simultaneous small bites out of the problem, rather than a big silver bullet.

TC: One of the big mistakes environmentalists have made is that they insist that the only clean power is renewable — we’re going to force renewable standards on everybody. It is an awful position to have put themselves in, because nobody can make a believable argument that renewable energy is cheaper. I’m all for renewables, but they’ve put themselves in the position of saying we’ve got to pay extra. It plays right into the hands of these conservative folks, the Inhofes of the world. In spite of my lack of respect for him, the guy has a lot of power, and there’s a lot of people like him.

By embracing all clean technologies, and by saying we’d like to do the low-hanging fruit first, the environmental community can gain some credibility with the financial community.

Let me give you an example. There are natural gas pipelines lacing the country, and they run all the time. Every hundred miles, there is a compressor station, purposely located in remote places. This gas is coming from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s coming from Alberta. It’s coming from Colorado. It’s moving lots of miles. Almost all of the compressors are gas turbines, which take some of the gas in the pipe and run a big gas turbine. Every one of these gas turbines has 1,000-degree exhaust, and a lot of it. They are typically about 33 percent efficient. So they are basically throwing away about 65 percent of the energy in the gas, in heat that goes right up the stack. You can cost-effectively go to the substack, put a heat-recovery steam generator on the exhaust, make steam, run a combined cycle steam turbine, and make 8 to 13 megawatts of fuel-free energy — at every one of them! 24/7!

In the United States, 3 of the 3,800 compressor stations have implemented this. Three out of 3,800.

DR: Has anyone ever tried to calculate how much waste energy is produced in the U.S., in total?

TC: Oh, absolutely. Lawrence Livermore Labs said we could make 95,000 MW — they included some fired CHP plants, which I took out, which leaves 64,000 megawatts. U.S. electric load take is about 750,000 megawatts. So we could make about 9 percent of our peak, but because it runs all the time, 20 percent of our power with just heat from the electric.

On the other side, I’ve done a study of what would happen if the United States went all the way with power recycling. We could cut our electric fuel in half. We could drop CO2 by between 20 and 30 percent. And we could make money on the first 25 percent drop with today’s technology. In the process, the technology would improve and we would be able to go farther.

DR: One would have thought that industrial processes and power generation would have improved their efficiency over the years, and not be shooting off so much energy into the air. If they do increase their efficiency, won’t it reduce the capacity for cogeneration?

TC: I think you have just gotten to the most telling point.

In 1900, about 3.5 percent of the potential energy put into electric generation actually became delivered electricity, and about 1.5 percent of it ended up as useful work. The curve rises for the next 60 years, as these things get more efficient. By 1960, about 32.5 percent of the potential was arriving as electricity. In 2005, we’re at 33 percent. The electrical generation industry stopped improving its efficiency. Can anybody name me another industry that hasn’t advanced its efficiency by a single percentage point in 45 years and is still in business?

DR: This is a disadvantage of having a monopoly in perpetuity, right?

TC: People often ask me, is the problem with energy because of the Democrats or the Republicans? And I can give you an unequivocal answer: yes. In that 45 years, most states have changed parties back and forth, and nothing we’ve tried has improved the efficiency. How many more decades do you want to keep beating that horse before you say, we need to start thinking about a different species? Maybe we got all we can get out of this horse.

The thing is, that’s about as good as you can get with central generation. It is a mistake to think that all we’ve got to do is pour money into R&D, go to clean coal and so forth. Public Service of Colorado has just gotten approval for a plant that will gasify coal and then run a combined turbine gas cycle; they’re scrubbing everything and so forth. $2500 a kilowatt to build that plant, and it will have a delivered efficiency of about 42 or 43 percent. $1500 a kilowatt Jim Young put in downtown Seattle, with a delivered efficiency of 85 percent.

The answer is sitting in front of us. The enemy is conventional thinking.