Recycling "Junk Energy": How Plants Are Cutting Emissions, Making Money and Turning their Waste Steam into Useful Energy
Image courtesy of RED
Americans fully waste 55% of the energy they consume. That, alongside a veritable slew of other eye-catching numbers, can found in a piece by Lisa Margonelli in the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine, in which she describes the operations of Recycled Energy Development, whose mission is to "profitably reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by developing and owning energy recycling facilities." The company offers to help plants recycle waste energy streams and generate useful electricity and thermal energy from a variety of sources including: exhaust heat from any industrial process, industrial tail gas (it would normally be vented, flared or incinerated) and pressure drops in any gas.According to Tom Casten, the company's chief executive, efficiently recycling waste energy could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10-20% and provide savings of up to $70b; having all plants capture their waste heat would allow the U.S. to derive 20% of its total energy needs from "junk energy". In other words, that would eliminate the need for new coal-fired plants - and even some of the existing ones.
One of RED's typical combined heat and power (CHP) plants supplies its industrial host with a combination of natural gas- and steam-powered electricity. Such facilities roughly achieve an 85% efficiency - in large part because they waste very little energy (they lack cooling towers that would otherwise vent waste heat) - and help cut down on fuel costs and emissions. Making some extra money on the side by selling back excess energy to the grid is another plus.
The 250 or so local plants that RED has built or operated since 1977 have at least doubled the efficiency of the central grid. Countries like Denmark, which have also moved towards a local generation model, have also drastically improved their electric efficiency while substantially reducing their fuel costs.
Given that a recent McKinsey study revealed that 75% of American companies were unwilling to invest in efficiency upgrades that take 2 years to pay for themselves, however, RED still has a ways to go before it breaks into the mainstream. Couple that with a maze of regulations that actually make it harder for companies to sell recycled energy at a profit, and it's clear that only a change in government policy or new incentives will help sell the technology.
Still, while many hoped for "green" technologies have yet to materialize, RED's CHP plants are here and already have a proven track record of success. So what if it's not actually "green" power per se? As Margonelli eloquently put it in her article: "Green power may pay great dividends years from now. Gray power, if we would embrace it, is a realistic goal for today."