Working Together: Cogeneration’s Benefit to the Energy Transition and Beyond

By Chris Lyon |

One of the biggest myths in renewable technology in my mind, aside from the “free lunch” concept, is that we can or should switch to 100% renewables right away. Yes, we all want the future to get here pronto, but the more anyone looks at the proposition of the mythical overnight switch can see that we’re looking toward at least a few decades of transition. You can’t take people’s cars away, you can’t force everyone to switch their gas stoves and heating tomorrow, and you can’t ask companies to scrap billions in invested infrastructure without causing a massive economic impact.

Wind and solar co-located on the same land.

Wind and solar co-located on the same land.

We won’t dispute the idea that renewables are the future, because they are. We won’t take umbrage with the concept that we can do more today, because we can. What we need to do is look at a transition that is not only fast moving, efficient, and truly sustainable, but also practical and affordable.

With the threat of continued devastation, cultural and economic upheaval from climate change and a growing, and rightfully energy-hungry, middle class around the world, the threat we face is enormous. Finding a solution and implementing it, in my opinion, should the primary focus of society. Even if our focus was set on moving to a cleaner future, the transition will be messy. People will bicker and disagree or worse. But, as a part of the Rational Middle way of thinking, we need to move beyond and find a path together.

There is a transition that needs to take place. And as experts we interviewed said again and again, it will take time. Not just to source, transport, construct, test, and integrate new resources onto the grid, but to let our old infrastructure phase out. Asking companies and municipalities to do away with billions upon billions of dollars worth of infrastructure would create undue burden on John Q. Taxpayer and on the average citizen’s utility bill. The future of energy will cost money to transition to, but without some massive government support, the cost of a purely public transition will be passed on wholly the consumer in a very short timeframe. It’s a conundrum, but it’s not without its path of least resistance.

Indeed, the transition will take time to construct, even with a mighty workforce, and a few decades time is all the time we need to implement not only the practical resources, but the legislative and regulatory bodies to ensure success. During this time, people will still need power, and there will still be old coal, oil, and gas infrastructure in place to service those needs, as dirty as they are. But who says that fossil and renewable power can’t work together in the meantime? Why set aside advantages that could be taken in the current system to boost renewable generation while phasing out fossils?

One such partnership is cogeneration. Cogen is a really interesting tool especially for those that have the domestic resources to do so – as North America and many other places around the world do. The concept is to generate electricity from two resources and/or increase the efficiency of the land and the resources available to reduce the amount of carbon-intensive resources necessary to create the same amount of energy.  For example, a traditional steam generator, like a coal plant, could use solar thermal energy to not only create electricity, but to passively pre-heat water going into the coal turbine to reduce the amount of coal needed to create steam. This concept can work for any traditional steam-driven technology. Sounds great, right?

John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, Tennessee Valley Authority

John Sevier Combined Cycle Plant, Tennessee Valley Authority

Fortunately for research and development timelines, this idea is not new. Natural gas plants have been co-generating with combined cycle plants for years – using not only the energy created by the turning of a gas-fired turbine, but collecting the waste heat to boil water and turn another turbine has shown substantial efficiency gains per unit of gas used. It’s a way of thinking on which we are terribly behind when it comes to implementation.

Another example of dual resource use to complement would be siting fuel cells with renewables which would be able to kick in when the sun doesn’t shine or wind doesn’t blow. In fact, Apple is already doing this with their latest data centers which are almost completely powered by renewables. We could also use solar to turn methane into syngas, a more efficient, and thus less-polluting fuel – a technology that is still in development. Renewable operators can co-locate solar and wind into one farm, creating a symbiotic use of the infrastructure (roads, power lines, etc) because wind blows more at night when the sun is gone. The same concept could be applied to a home which would use heat from the earth beneath the house to keep the temperature inside a home a near constant, reducing the need for heating or air conditioning. The list goes on.

This way of thinking, combining industries and concepts to make our electricity generation more efficient and effective, has to be an option people become aware of and are incentivized to use as a tool in the kit of the energy future. In stocks, traders like to diversify their portfolio to reduce risk, and the same ideas must make their way into how society plans for and consumes energy.

So too, I think, we should encourage cogeneration and support new ideas by considering the resources of an area and implementing what’s best for local needs. We have to stop thinking about energy in silos of resources instead and create new innovation through new ways of thinking.

Check out The Great Transition and The Future of Renewables for more conversation on the subject of generating power for the energy future.