Energy Futures: Cogeneration, Electric Vehicles, Efficient Buildings

Energy for the Future

We just need the courage to invest our remaining wealth in the right energy technologies. The stakes are high because if we delay too long or invest badly, we’ll forfeit our prosperous lifestyle. Our first task is to reduce our energy consumption by 40 to 50 percent. There is certainly enough energy waste in our lives to accomplish this goal.

Next, we must attack our three primary energy problems.

1. Our combustion-based electrical generation is pathetically wasteful.

2. Our internal-combustion-engine vehicles are inherently inefficient.

3. Most or our important large buildings are not insulated and can’t be easily retrofitted. We need a continuing supply of cheap energy to heat them.

The solutions to these problems are inter-related and involve switching to some uncommon, although well-developed, technologies. These technologies include electric vehicles, combined heat and power (CHP), distributed electrical generation, and district heating. The following energy futures will help America maintain a long and prosperous run.

Energy Futures:  Vehicles

Most experts now believe that electric vehicles are the solution to our transportation future. Liquid biofuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, aren’t the answer for several reasons. We can’t produce enough corn to impact our current transportation-fuel consumption. Planting the entire State of Iowa in corn would fuel less than a week’s worth of American driving annually. Other biofuel feedstocks, such as switch grass or wood, haven’t proven technically or economically viable. Finally, refining corn or cellulose into liquid biofuels is an energy-intensive and un-economical process.

With electric vehicles, we need lots of sustainable electricity. The Europeans are generating both sustainable electricity and usable heat from coal and biomass. This “combined heat and power” (CHP) uses up to 85% of the fuel’s energy, wasting only 15%. We Americans waste 70% of the energy in our coal, oil, and gas used to turn electric generators. This is unsustainable. CHP generates electricity and uses the waste energy to heat buildings or power industries like fertilizer factories and pulp mills.

 

Energy Futures:  Power Generation

CHP generation facilities can be smaller than our current generating plants, and will be distributed into areas where both electricity and heat are needed. CHP strategies for local production of electricity and space heat are called “distributed generation” and “district heating”.

Our inefficient schools, courthouses, and office buildings will soon need the CHP’s waste heat as natural gas costs rise. And the electric cars of the future will need the CHP’s electricity. One CHP plant can provide distributed generation and district heating to a few buildings or a whole town.

The problem with CHP is that we need to locate the new CHP plants in cities, towns, and industrial sites. This change requires a huge investment to build clean, new plants. We’ll also need to discard the “not-in-my-back-yard” approach to utility siting.

Let’s face the facts: our biggest new source of inexpensive energy is the energy we currently waste generating electricity. The technology exists to generate electricity cleanly and efficiently in population centers.

 

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