The Unsung Solution

Painting: Alexis Rockman
Painting: Alexis Rockman

From his desk in an office in Chicago, Jeff Smith has a bird’s-eye view of the American landscape. Combing through a huge database of information compiled by the EPA, he can, almost literally, peer down every smokestack in the nation and figure out what’s going on inside.

And what he sees is heat. Waste heat — one of the country’s largest potential sources of power, pouring up out of those smokestacks. If it could be recycled into electricity, that heat would generate immense amounts of power without our having to burn any new fossil fuels. By immense, I mean, speaking technically, humongous. Even after he’s winnowed the nation’s half a million smokestacks down to the most likely customers, that leaves twenty-five thousand stacks. “An astronomical number,” Smith says.

His boss at Recycled Energy Development, Sean Casten, leafs through the reams of data Smith has compiled. The biggest sources of waste heat are some gas turbines used to generate power, but there are endless other examples. “Let’s look at Florida,” he says. “Here’s a Maxwell House coffee roaster in Duval County. They’re roasting beans, so all that heat has to go somewhere. About twelve megawatts’ worth of potential electricity is going up the stack.” Casten could take the equipment he sells, a “waste-heat recovery boiler,” and stick it on top of the stack. “Basically, there’s a network of tubes with water in them. The heat would hit one side of it, produce steam, and we’d use that to turn a turbine and generate electricity. It’s like any other boiler, just without a flame, because the heat is already there.”

Does that sound suspiciously pie-in-the-sky? Casten can drive a few miles from his Chicago office to an East Chicago plant run by Mittal Steel. A few years ago, a predecessor energy-recycling company installed this kind of equipment on the smokestacks of the plant’s coke ovens. In 2004, this single steel plant generated roughly the same amount of clean energy as was produced by all of the grid-connected solar collectors throughout the world. Casten’s company estimates that recycling waste heat from factories alone could produce 14 percent of the electric power the U.S. now uses. If you took much the same approach to electric generating stations you could, says Casten, conceivably produce the same amount of energy we use now with half the fossil fuel.

Let’s cut the numbers in half to account for corporate enthusiasm. Hell, let’s cut them in half again. You’re still talking about one of the most effective ways to cut carbon emissions that we’ve got, a mature technology ready to go. You’re talking about a recycling project infinitely more important than all that paper we’ve been bundling and glass we’ve been rinsing for the last two decades. Why isn’t it happening everywhere? The first answer, says Casten, is that very few companies spend much time thinking about their waste heat. “How much time do you think about the useful things you could be doing with your urine?” asks Casten. “The guy at the coffee roaster is spending all day focused on roasting coffee beans so they taste good.”

In a perfectly rational market, however, lots of players would see that heat disappearing up the stack, realize they’re watching hundred-dollar bills spewing into the atmosphere, and set up businesses like Casten’s to try and harvest it. It’s not exactly simple — you need to understand how much heat each plant generates, how it varies day by day, how corrosive the other gases in the stack are, and so forth, but it’s no harder than a million other technical feats that a million other companies perform every day. No harder, for instance, than singeing a coffee bean to produce a robust and roasty blend. The obstacle lies in the phrase “perfectly rational market.” Electricity is essentially the opposite, a heavily regulated semi-monopoly where many of the laws work to protect the profits of utilities, and where, if you deregulate carelessly, you end up with fiascos like Enron’s calculated bludgeoning of California’s ratepayers.

For instance, in almost every state it’s illegal for anyone but the utility to run wires across a public street. So if Casten’s company generates more electricity from the smokestack of the coffee roaster than the factory can use itself, his company can’t sell the surplus to the guy making coffee cans across the street. They have to sell it to the utility, which wants to pay the lowest price possible for it. The utility argues that it still bears the cost of maintaining the network of wires that constitute the grid, and if it’s not selling to the coffee-can plant, that cost will have to be passed on to, say, residential customers.

This is a conundrum that environmentalists are going to have to help solve. They need to pressure regulators to pressure utilities to treat low-carbon energy as a precious resource, to make reducing global warming at least as crucial a goal as ensuring a reliable energy supply and keeping rates down. And indeed environmentalists have begun to have some successes along these lines. In lots of states, for instance, people with solar panels on their roofs can now connect to the grid more easily, and in some cases get
a decent price for the power they generate.

However, solar panels and windmills are somewhat sexier than waste-heat recovery boilers, and it’s possible that environmentalists have skewed their priorities accordingly. In Massachusetts, for example, Casten led an ultimately futile bid to get recycled energy included in the state’s “renewable portfolio standard,” the government mandate to generate an increasing percentage of the state’s energy from clean sources. His opponents included some in the renewable community, who feared recycled energy would edge out wind turbines and photovoltaics for dollars. “We shouldn’t set them up in a zero-sum game against each other,” says Alan Nogee, director of the Clean Energy Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Instead, he proposes yet another new standard, this one just for recycled energy — a sound idea, probably, but while it waits to get adopted, the carbon content of the atmosphere keeps on increasing.

Seth Kaplan, director of the Clean Energy and Climate Change Program at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, calls the controversy a perfect example of “the climate advocate’s mantra: whatever the choice is, you’ve got to do both.” It’s “absolutely nuts,” he says, for there to be tension between the sun-and-wind guys and the backers of recycling schemes like Casten’s, especially since retrofitting factories to recover waste heat picks the lowest-hanging fruit while developing renewables helps build the energy system we’ll need in the decades to come.

Kaplan’s right, but if heat recycling is going to happen on the scale and at the pace required to deal with climate change, it will mean enviros being willing to focus on stuff like smokestacks and utility regulation with the same enthusiasm with which we rhapsodize about the spinning blades of windmills. That’s hard — there aren’t any good folk songs about waste-heat recovery boilers. And it’s going to mean utilities, and the politicians who regulate them, understanding that they now have three missions: keeping the lights on, at something approaching affordable prices, on a habitable planet.

Once in a while, it turns out, we get to work on all three simultaneously. Casten just signed a contract with a factory in the Southeast that makes silicon. He’ll recycle the waste heat from their stack, and as a result the solar panels made with that silicon will require a third less fossil fuel to produce. There must be a song there somewhere.

Bill McKibben is an American environmentalist and writer who frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. McKibben is a frequent contributor to various magazines including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Orion, Rolling Stone, and Outside. His most recent books include Eaarth, Enough, Wandering Home, and Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007). McKibben currently resides with his wife, writer Sue Halpern and his daughter Sophie in Ripton, Vermont. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College.

Comments

  1. Ahh, recycling. This is a great idea [and practice] as long as it doesn’t evolve into an excuse for not cleaning up emissions or preventing their needless discharge in the first place.

    As the article alludes, the barrier to selling small [or perhaps in this case not so small]scale home or factory generated power is small but large-technical problems are absent and the choke point is physically small, but the utility industry guarding the gate quite large and well connected.

    Germany of course has had an excellent system in place for a number of years paying small scale producers quite well for their power understanding the environmental and economic benefits and security this provides as well as avoided capital costs. Here in the US, it’s relatively easy to get a grid tie or net metering sysytem for what alternative power you produce but for the most part what you produce is only credited [and only to a point] against what you use from the utitily. There is no incentive to actually build a system that could easily produce a surplus of power.

    But meanwhile, as I heard on the radio a couple of days ago as the TVA readies a second nuke plant option-let’s throw another 50 billion dollar subsidy at nuclear power [and where goes the waste?]-while coal enjoys a resurgence-just proving the point that we can be counted on to take the most obviously harmful causes of action pretty much every time.

    Oy!

  2. Good article on turning smokestack heat into lighting.
    How do we get past the zero-sum equation? 30 years ago, power utility districts north of Seattle were already subsidising ceiling and wall insulation to slow power demand. Happy economists will find ways to manage grid or tax incentives toward solutions.
    As Ed Friedman suggests, Germany is a good place to look for precedents on recycling heat. The US should also see that Europe deems biodiesel from canola (Raps) as cleaner motor fuel than ethanol from corn.

  3. Great idea in the short term and one that will help give us time to address the implications of peaking oil and other fossil fuels. Considering that our oil has. or is in the process of peaking. and that natural gas is not far behind, shouldn’t we also be looking at how we are using our resources? We need to make a transition from these finite, dwindling and less viable energy sources and, we need enough time and resources to bridge the gap. I don’t see the point of using a diminishing energy resource to make a cheap plastic toy that will break within an hour of purchase and be thrown into landfill, just for the sake of making a few pennies. The more durable our manufactured goods are, the less pennies each of us will have to generate to buy more, whereby eliminating the necessity for bloated paypackets supported by built in obsolesence in the first place.

  4. Great article, Mr. McKibben. I live in Pohang, South Korea, and my apartment complex is heated by the heat generated at the Pohang Iron and Steel Company’s plant several miles away.

  5. another good overview by mckibben. why haven’t I ever heard of this before now?

  6. All that pressuring…to try and get private utilities to do what we need them to do….problem is, power generation and distribution needs to be in the direct hands of the public and not in for-profit private hands…We don’t need profiteering middle men in the production of those goods and services that are needed broadly and easily monopolized and oligopolized…

  7. I just forwarded relevant sections of this to my ol’ pal, Sandman the Rappin’ Cowboy [rappincowboy.com] in the hopes that he’ll get to work on the sitchiation, ya’ll.

    Relevant=”there aren’t any good songs about waste-heat-recovery boilers”

    Q: what songs about solar panels and windmills are there?

  8. Casten asks, “How much time do you think about the useful things you could be doing with your urine?”

    I’d say that I spend, on average, about seven hours a day thinking about my urine. Does that make me weird?

  9. This is a time-tested technology that is quite well-known in industry.

    It used to be called Co-Generation (Co-Gen) but lately it’s been called Combined Heat and Power (CHP). The author states that power plants aren’t using it, but he’s wrong. Almost every utility generating plant uses heat recovery. On natural-gas plants they are called CCCTs (Combined Cycle Combustion Turbines). This is basically a jet engine combined with a heat recovery unit to capture the waste heat in the exhaust.

    So yes, there are lots more opportunities that need to be captured from industrial processes, but many are not quite “cost-effective” at current energy prices. Once prices include the cost of carbon, they will become more widespread.

  10. Another example of how we already have the (technological) answers to our big questions, and it’s a matter of changing our paradigm and infrastructure. Thanks for another great article!

  11. Jusby the Clown asks about songs about solar panels and windmills –
    try out “power” by John and Johanna Hall. you can find it on Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Songs of Conscience and Concern”

    it’s a start.

    super article as well.

  12. An Orion reader took of Bill’s lyrical challenge and recently sent this ode to waste heat recovery to our offices — Hal Clifford, Orion executive editor

    No enviros think you’re sexy
    but the smart ones know your worth
    I read about you in Orion
    I’d like to help you at your birth

    Waste-heat recovery boiler
    way up in the air
    Waste-heat recovery boiler
    they ignore you and that’s not fair

    Recycling’s the name of the game
    and you’re the top so far
    low-hanging fruit they say
    (although I still should shun my car)

    Waste-heat recovery boiler
    way up in the air
    Waste-heat recovery boiler
    they ignore you and that’s not fair

    Your day will come, don’t worry
    your future is real bright
    The moon will shine down on you
    on a future summer night

    Waste-heat recovery boiler
    way up in the air
    Waste-heat recovery boiler
    I want you to know I care!

  13. Response to Steve Weiss:

    Your comment is partially right, but misleading. At the risk of being overly facetious, it’s like saying that Idi Amin was a great father. While it may be true, the truth misses the larger issue. Here’s why:

    1. The US electricity sector is 33% efficient, meaning that they throw away 2/3rds of all their input energy as waste heat (indeed, if you picture a power plant, your image is probably of the cooling tower). This is the same as it was in 1957. And lest we think that is some technical limit, it was twice as high in 1910! Indeed, even Edison’s very first power plant was 50% efficient. The difference in these earlier plants was that they were cogen facilities, while the present architecture is designed primarily to throw heat away. This means that we could massively reduce our cost of energy and CO2 emissions simply by going back to 1910 technologies. (Optimist that I am, I think we can actually do better than 1910.) When you recognize that 69% of our CO2 emissions come from heat & power generation, the scale of this opportunity – and crisis of our energy policy – becomes massively apparent.

    2. You’re right about putting heat recovery cycles on gas turbines, but even those still throw away almost 50% of the energy, since much of the energy in power plant exhaust is in the heat of vaporization. (e.g., the heat to evaporate water, rather the heat to cool steam). The difference in our approach is that we are targeting industrial facilities where the heat is being thrown away on a more continuous basis. (Our entire gas-fired power fleet only has about a 20% annual capacity factor due to high gas costs, while an industrial plant produces heat 24/7. This makes the potential for displacing dirtier power much larger at these industrial plants.) That said, your point is well taken that all gas turbines really ought to have “steam tails” on them, and it is a great opportunity for further deployment. One opportunity we’re looking at is on natural gas pipelines, which install small gas turbines every ~100 miles to repressurize the gas – and with a small number of exceptions, all of them throw away the waste heat, and could readily make 4 – 6 MW per compressor station all across the country.

  14. “Sunbathing in Siberia”

    I’m sunbathing in Siberia
    Surfing the waves of the Bering Sea
    Sunbathing in Siberia
    Scuba diving where New Orleans used to be.

    If Gore had been awarded the White House
    He’d chain us with Kyoto 1 2 3
    There’d be solar panels on the rooftops
    CoGen and Wind power, clean and almost free

    I’m sunbathing in Siberia
    Surfing the waves of the Bering Sea
    Sunbathing in Siberia
    Scuba diving where Florida used to be.

    Copyleft, c, 2007, X B Coldfingers

  15. I sure hope Casten gets with the Google guys and their money & efforts.

  16. In the “Reasons Not to Glow” discussions, last one no. 36, I have outlined how we can kill three plus major environmental problems with one action. That action is to apply a process called pyrolysis to our massive organic waste messes as it will turn some of the waste into charcoal and get some energy. It will also destroy germs and almost all toxics thereby cutting greatly the megabucks spent on maintaining dumps to keep those hazardous materials from seeping into water supplies. And it will thereby help lower the costs of cleaning up our water supplies getting more and more polluted now.
    I urge discussants here to check the “Reasons Not to Glow” discussion board to learn more details. Dr. J. Singmaster

  17. There seems to be a widespread lack of comprehension, even among “energy enthusiasts” of the meaning of the term, “waste heat” (and a lot of other fundamental thermodynamics). Do you really think a power generating station is intentionally throwing away potential power, i.e. profit? This alone should make you question this kind of careless or intentionally misleading half-truth. Fact: you can’t make a heat engine work without waste heat. This is not an obscure concept, it’s fundamental. A 100% efficient (i.e. perfect) coal-fired power plant would be only 64% efficient. This French guy named Carnot figured this out in 1824. Before you blaze into the future, you need to catch up to ~200 years ago, people. Emotions and conjecture don’t make electricity, knowledge of sound science and engineering does.

  18. Martin: You make two common mistakes – allow me to briefly respond to each.

    First power stations don’t make money by saving costs – they make money by deploying capital. Such is the consequence of our electric regulation, and explains why the industry was twice as efficient in 1910 as it is today (in 1910, they recovered waste heat). So yes, they are throwing away heat, but no, they’re not throwing away profit. The regulatory model is responsible for this collapse in efficiency, not a lack of focus on shareholder returns by utilities.

    The second mistake is to assume that what matters is carnot limits on efficiency. Yes, you can’t make more power than Carnot dictates but that’s not really relevant. Remember that Carnot doesn’t limit heat recovery (e.g., as hot water or steam) and the majority of the energy that goes into the power plant leaves in this low value form. But if I recover heat that displaces a fueled boiler elsewhere, I’ve gotten around Carnot, since I’m now directly saving high-value gas/oil/etc. with low value heat. The other side of that equation though is that Carnot only applies if you’re recovering heat from power plants – if you are recovering heat from industrial exhaust stacks (from whence Jeff Smith’s dataset derives), you can still have exhaust that is quite hot and able to do useful work and generate more power.

  19. My heat came from recycled energy (landfill) in a small town called Moedling, south of Vienna, in 1975!!! I’m fairly certain other European towns have done this for a while, so why doesn’t America look to them for advice?

  20. Ms. Cox”s comment, No. 20, shows a lack of understanding by many environmentalists about composting etc. because with the giving off of heat, carbon dioxide is also released in the biodegrading of organic waste. And seepage from such facilities may be causing ground water contamination. Using pyrolysis as I described in several comments mentioned in “Reasons Not to Glow” avoids giving off that gas needlessly and would stop any problems of germs or toxics getting out from organic wastes to pollute water. Dr. J. Singmaster

  21. I much enjoyed this article, it speaks to what needs to be said. We need to stop seeking out more and more supply to meet more and more demand when we can be addressing harvesting new energy within our existing supply ie: stack heat etc… combined with assertive and meaningful conservation, not just installing CFLs in our homes. In Ontario, my Province, it is estimated that there is an easy 30% energy savings that could be recouped in making commercial buildings more efficient, yet what are our current politicians thinking of doing, building more nukes ‘to meet the every growing needs of Ontario’ rather than calling it what it is, ‘meeting the ever growing waste in Ontario’. Great article, esp the comment about sexy vs not so sexy energy sources.

  22. Mike Nagy:
    Your province, Ontario, illustrates the way conventional thinking blocks efficiency. Premier McGuinty pledged to close coal plants, and an organization I chair, Alliance for Clean Technology or ACT developed a consensus among developers, environmentalists, equipment suppliers and large industrial users on a definition of ‘clean technology’. ACT proposed that OPA issue a standard offer for power from clean technology at a price reflecting at least half of the true value of clean local generation. The Ontario Power Authority and Energy Ministry responded with a reasonable draft proposal for clean technology (CESOP), but limited eligibility to toy power plants, under 10 megawatts of capacity. OPA, in my view, learned the wrong lessons from their standard offer for renewable energy. ACT identified 600 megawatts that could be generated from industrial waste out of just the largest stacks in the province, all with more than 10 MW capacity. “Oh,” said the bureaucrats, we must hold an auction for anything above the toy size, so we can be sure the citizens got the best price. This response has surface logic, but developing recycled energy projects takes two to three years, has never been successfully induced with a request for proposal in any jurisdiction. Furthermore, if the OPA does not rapidly induce new clean generation, the province will be forced to the default case of building more inefficient central generation that cannot recycle byproduct waste heat, and will cost more than the prices in the draft CESOP.
    OPA’s response? Hire a consultant to study ACT’s comments. A year has now passed since McGuinty sought action, and the coal plants keep warming the planet and causing 12 cents of health and environmental damages per kWh generated (Energy Ministry study). Ontario industrial plants keep throwing away valuable exhaust energy 24/7. Ontarians keep paying to warm the planet.

    My suspicion is that the good folks at OPA have their veins filled with the old “Central Generation System” kool aid, cannot imagine a world of multiple generators close to load, and have used their knowledge to frighten the ministry into inaction. Maybe there is a more gentle explanation, but the results — zero — remain.
    Talk to WWF in Ontario about how you and your fellow Ontarians can help move to clean technololgy.

    Tom Casten

  23. In a word, yes, companies leave revenue on the table. It costs money to harness resources. Sometimes they don’t have the expertise, other times they just don’t see it.

    Every company and every consumer who owns or rents a roof and who does not put photovoltaic solar panels on said roof is throwing away potential revenue.

    Everyone who says ‘wind power spoils my view’ is really saying ‘my view is worth more to me than clean energy.’

  24. This article has inspired me to write coffee roasters in the SF area about “Waste-Heat Recovery” to produce electrical power. May I copy this article to send to the coffee roasters I will contact?

    I was introduced to Orion at Bioneers Conferences. I love your magazine. Pt. Reyes Books & our library carry it. Gail Greenlees

  25. Here’s another song, version of “We Shall Not Be Moved, the traditional Gospel and civil rights song:

    WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED

    We shall not, we shall not be moved
    We shall not, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    WE must stop Global Warming, we shall not be moved
    WE must stop Global Warming, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    No nukes is good nukes, we shall not be moved
    No nukes is good nukes, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    Aint no such thing as ‘Clean Coal,’ we shall not be moved
    Aint no such thing as ‘Clean Coal,’ we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    We shall not, we shall not be moved
    We shall not, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    Wind and Solar Power, we shall not be moved
    Wind and Solar Power, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    Geothermal and Co-Gen, we shall not be moved
    Geothermal and Co-Gen, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    I am a ‘Gore-ista’, we shall not be moved
    Je suis un ‘Gore-ista’, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

    We shall not, we shall not be moved
    We shall not, we shall not be moved
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water
    We shall not be moved

  26. I read this article and was inspired to contact Sean Casten whose company makes those waste-heat recovery boilers and ask some questions. Then I began targeting the local BIG waste-heat potential candidates and am in the process of connecting with them to spread the word.

  27. Re comments 7, 13, and my comments 15 and 26, I recently posted “Sunbathing in Siberia” on my website, xbcoldfingers.com. “We Shall Not Be Moved” will follow. Streaming downloads are free, at least until I get it up on iTunes or a record label comes a-knockin.

    I hope you like it. Altho I wish it didn’t need to be written.

  28. in developing countries, power failure is frequent.if a number of house units are connected via apipe, which collects each houses waste heat andis directed to a common for all neighborhood-waste heat recovery boiler; then enough electrical energy could be shared by turning the turbine.and “the power supply less” time could be tided over thus.in each house in tropical climes-there are plenty of exhaust fans throwing out hot air from the rooms.hot rooftops and walls,ordinary water pipes heated by the intense sun.cooking is almost a full time roaring occupation.cars coming into garages give off tremendous heat into the already hot weather.hot water from clothes washing machines with a ton of washing to do of a developing country’s family.heat heat everywhere but never a bubble to use!!great article-“unsung”

  29. For that matter, why not recycle Flood water? Pump flood water away, clean it and then use it or pump it to where it is needed?

    And if you want to talk about Lighting, then check out The International Dark Sky Association to find out how we are polluting our night sky with light and why it is important!

Commenting on this item is closed.