Out With the Old, in With the New, continued

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Today’s average power plant operates at about 30 percent efficiency, far less than those built at the turn of the last century. That means that for every one unit of energy going into the grid, two units are wasted.

Waste Not, Want Less

Ask any kid to draw a power plant and, chances are, she’ll draw a box with a smokestack. These are the ubiquitous cooling towers that belch steam—along with various airborne pollutants like sulfur dioxide and greenhouse gases like CO2—into the planet’s atmosphere.

Sean Casten of the Illinois-based Recycled Energy Development looks at cooling towers and sees something different: energy. “Towers exist simply to throw away energy,” he says.

Just how much energy is wasted? The numbers are nothing short of staggering. Today’s average power plant, says Casten, operates at about 30 percent efficiency, far less than those built at the turn of the last century. That means that for every one unit of energy going into the grid, two units are wasted.

Now consider this: 40 percent of all CO2 emissions are generated by electrical power plants, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Power utilities aren’t the only ones tossing energy. Recycled Energy Development recently launched a project to capture waste heat from a silicon production facility in West Virginia. By harnessing that energy, the plant will produce 45 megawatts of power, the equivalent to that used by about 20,000 U.S. homes.

In a recent study, the DOE and the EPA added up all the sources of wasted energy in the country, factored in which could be saved, and calculated that 40 percent of our nation’s energy needs could be met just by capturing that waste. “And we think that’s a conservative estimate,” says Casten.

While these waste recovery projects are industrial-scale, multimillion-dollar investments, cost is not the primary barrier to energy recycling. Instead, state and federal regulations are the culprit, making it difficult or even impossible to use energy more efficiently. Power utilities enjoy a monopoly on power generation. Only recently have regulations loosened to permit non-utilities to generate power and sell the energy on the open market.

In New England, the electricity wholesale market fosters efficiency not only by purchasing power from small-scale producers, but by rewarding conservation on the consumer side. “The utility will pay you for any load reduction, the same as building a power plant, so anyone can access that market, even small businesses,” says Casten, who helped a lumber mill generate 500 kilowatts of electricity from waste heat, allowing the company to claim a conservation credit.

Of course, deregulation is not without its pitfalls. The rationale for the utility monopoly was to ensure access to the grid for customers who might not be profitable to serve. California’s experiments in deregulation, which dovetailed with Enron’s failed experiments in online trading of wholesale electricity (as well as the company’s accounting fraud to cover the failure), resulted in massive blackouts and higher prices for consumers.

But these blunders are avoidable, and the benefits of adding small-scale power generation to the grid go far beyond energy recycling.

“The basic need is for a system where, if I want to build a power plant for my own selfish reasons, I need to be allowed to connect to the grid,” says Casten. Regulations should protect consumers, the environment and the stability of the grid, he adds, “but that’s all pretty simple.”

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