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CHP plants are in place already for many manufacturing operations, as well as hospitals, office complexes, or any large building that requires electricity around-the-clock.

Catching on to Cogeneration

March 1, 2018
Energy-efficiency is not a hard-sell to manufacturers, so why are there not more proponents for cogeneration?

U.S. manufacturers may be taking a breather after several decades of expanding regulatory policy, but that does not mean federal agencies are not watching, and planning. The quest to optimize the availability and use of thermal and electrical energy in manufacturing plants is as intense as ever, and the U.S. Dept. of Energy is coordinating such efforts through its Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE.)

DOE’s interest is the general strength and reliability of the electric grid — the vast infrastructure that connects power generation sources to power consumers. The demand on the grid is extraordinary, and keeping it strong is an ongoing effort. Adding new sources of power gives the grid flexibility as well as boosts its resources. Distributing demand more effectively or efficiently is another way to improve the reliability of the grid, which is the simplest way to understand the enduring appeal of combined heat and power (or, cogeneration) projects.

Cogeneration is itself a flexible label to describe systems that concurrently produce electricity or mechanical power and useful thermal energy (heating and/or cooling) from a single source of energy (typically in a manufacturing operation). It also refers to a type of distributed power generation in place at or near the point of consumption, in contrast to centralized generation. And, finally, cogeneration may refer to groups of technologies that use various fuels to generate electricity or power at the point of use, so that heat that would normally be lost in the power generation process is recovered to provide needed heating and/or cooling.

Manufacturing processes like foundries present a range of possibilities for devising cogeneration systems, and possibility of recovering power for use can be attractive. Finding and selecting the right technology for a particular plant — and making the financial formulas work, too — is the concern for the manufacturer.

Last month EERE announced it is offering up to $10 million to qualified programs, to conduct research and development activities that will promote the use of “cost-effective, highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) specifically designed to provide support to the electric grid.” 

For EERE, the CHP in this program is seen as mainly gas-fired distributed generation technologies that produce electricity and thermal energy on-site, providing users with more efficient and lower cost electricity while also increasing site reliability and energy security. (Reducing strain on the grid is a further advantage – or goal, from DOE’s perspective.)

EERE operates within DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, which coordinates and supports R&D and consortia, and early-stage technical partnerships with national laboratories, private enterprises, state and local governments, and universities to investigate new manufacturing technologies. 

In this regard, CHP is the focus of both research and development and technology partnerships. The R&D is concentrated on researching new CHP technologies that will promote U.S. economic competitiveness and economic development.

As for the $10-million research initiative, EERE anticipates it will issue six to 10 awards in the form of cooperative agreements. The funding will include two “areas of interest” to research into new CHP technologies:
Power Electronics and Control Systems. These projects would investigate, develop, and test CHP components necessary to enable the cost-effective use of new and existing CHP systems, to provide support to the grid. 
Electricity Generation Components. These projects would research and develop the electricity generation component of a 1-20 MWe CHP system capable of two operating configurations: a baseload mode, where it is running at half its rated capacity and is designed to perform in a conventional CHP manner; and a second, full-rated-capacity mode, where it is designed to maximize its ability to support the electric grid.  

Not Hiding the Savings — This new EERE initiative should not disguise the fact that CHP plants are already in place for many manufacturing operations, as well as hospitals, schools, office complexes, or any large building that requires electricity around-the-clock. They convert heat from a furnace or boiler into usable electricity, supplementing the regular supply.

Every CHP is conceived as a way to recover thermal energy that otherwise is “wasted.” In one common configuration, a gas or liquid fuel is combusted in a gas turbine or reciprocating engine that is connected to a generator, which produces electricity, and so the thermal energy normally released to a hot exhaust and cooling system is recovered, as useful thermal energy for the site.

In another typical configuration, fuel is burned in a boiler to produce high-pressure steam that is sent to a backpressure or extraction steam turbine. The steam turbine is connected to an electric generator. Steam exiting the turbine at a lower pressure is used as thermal energy on-site. 

Other CHP system designs that may work for a particular installation include fuel cells, microturbines (gas or liquid fueled turbines, 30-330 kW). reciprocating engines, and absorption chillers (to provide air conditioning, refrigeration, and process fluid cooling.) 

Heavy regulation of manufacturing may be on pause but the prospect of wider embrace for CHP in manufacturing remains somewhat unclear, perhaps because its role is not fully understood. 

“CHP is fundamentally more than just making electricity and delivering heat,” according to Bob Gemmer, a CHP expert with EERE. “It is about combining them. There are a couple of things from an R&D point of view that can be done to increase the use of CHP technology. The first thing is to make CHP cheaper and easier to use. … The second thing that can be done is to make CHP more efficient.”

Energy-efficiency is not a hard-sell to manufacturers, but defining the terms of “efficiency” — financial cost, thermal units, or even carbon emissions —that are shared by energy consumers, energy producers, and energy regulators is the missing piece in defining a future for combined heat and power systems.