Combined Heat and Power: Not the Brad and Jen of Energy, But….

Dec. 10, 2013
Why champion CHP? Because despite its ponderous name, CHP is a “Wow” approach to energy. CHP may not be as sexy as solar and wind energy, but it can produce energy much more efficiently than a typical centralized power plant. CHP provides two energy sources from one fuel.

I hesitate to start this blog with the words “combined heat and power.”  You might stop reading.

Okay, so it’s not the Brad and Jen of energy. (That would be solar and wind.) But what it lacks in glamour, it makes up for in constancy and results. It’s an old guy, been around for about a century. And while its name might not sound green, it offers an extraordinarily efficient way to energize buildings.

Elisa Wood is off at the Combined Heat and Power Association’s conference in DC. So today we are re-running this popular blog that she wrote about CHP in 2011 — with some updates.

Why champion CHP?  Because despite its ponderous name, CHP is a “Wow” approach to energy, one that people should talk about at parties as much as they do solar these days.

CHP units, often used at universities, hospitals and factories, put to good use the waste heat created in producing electricity. Usually, we just let this heat vanish into the sky. But CHP, a form of distributed generation, reuses the byproduct to heat and cool buildings or assist in industrial processes. CHP can produce energy much more efficiently than a typical centralized power plant because it provides two energy sources from one fuel. We know it works because, as the American Council for an Energy-Effiient Economy points out, CHP “has been cleanly and quietly providing over 12% of U.S. electricity.”

If it’s so good, why don’t we use more of it? The US is trying – at least some areas of the country. President Barack Obama has set a target to increase CHP 50 percent by 2020.

“CHP markets differ considerably among states,” said Anna Chittum, ACEEE senior policy analyst and lead author of ACEEE’s September 28, 2011 CHP report.

Do you live in a pro-CHP state? Not if you’re in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky or Idaho, the bottom states for CHP, according to ACEEE’s 2013 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard.

You definitely do, if you’re in  Massachusetts,  Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon, California and Arizona, the top states.

(You can find ACEEE’s latest analysis of your state’s CHP markets and policies here.)

CHP’s woes are not simply a result of weak state  policy. Local market factors, utility electricity prices and other influences come into play, not the least of which is today’s slow economy.

Utilities sometimes discourage CHP development because CHP reduces their sales by letting utility customers produce all or part of their own energy. In addition,  CHP tends to be “homeless” in the world of energy regulation and advocacy, according to ACEEE. Big, powerful political groups don’t spend much time talking about CHP.  (But you can find excellent information and advocacy for CHP at the Combined Heat and Power Association.)

“CHP is not well understood by regulators, not well-suited for renewable energy programs – because it often is fueled by non-renewable fuels – and too expensive for most short-term energy efficiency programs – because its payback period is long and its upfront costs high compared to many other efficiency measures,” said ACEEE. “Consequently, few state administrations or lawmakers have taken up the cause of CHP.”

That’s starting to change.  CHP is definitely getting more attention than it once did. But it still has a public relations problem. It’s not only no Brad and Jen (or Brad and Angelina), but it also is downright homeless. Let’s start a trend to get CHP off the street. Open up a conversation at a party with, “Hey, how about that combined heat and power…”

And thank you for reading this blog.

About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

Twitter: @ElisaWood

LinkedIn: Elisa Wood

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