What You Don’t Know About Cogeneration

You’ve probably heard the term “cogeneration” or seen the phrase “combined heat and power” (CHP). That’s because the concept is catching on – new energy reforms in Mexico aim to encourage the development of cogeneration plants, and work is almost complete on California-based Calgren Renewable Fuels’ anaerobic digester, which will replace the natural gas currently used by its cogeneration plants with cleaner-burning biogas.

iStock_000006903237SmallBut with all this interest in CHP, chances are you’ve missed a few points of note – here’s what you don’t know about cogeneration:

It’s Smaller Than You Think

Cogeneration typically comes with a sense of scale: large power plants or production facilities are the front lines of this technology.

As a result, it’s to easy view CHP as something that requires a large operation to be economically viable. In fact, combining heat and power is already possible at a small scale, and energy providers are looking to tap the market.

In Alberta, Canada, utility service Atco Gas now offers the free installation of CHP units for companies that meet their requirements. Two units – at a leisure center and seniors’ condo – should be up and running within the year. Atco retains ownership of the CHP generators but all maintenance is done free of charge.

“What we’re trying to do is stimulate the market – create some awareness around the program, around the possibility of using CHP for your building,” according to Wayne Morishita, Atco’s director of marketing and sales. As technology improves and the cost of the units come down, Atco hopes to be a leader in the developing commercial cogen market.

It’s Bigger Than You Realize

In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, cogeneration technology is being used in the country’s first zero carbon “eco town,” North West Bicester. The initial phase features 393 homes powered by a combination of renewable energy and CHP.

Electricity will be generated by over 17,000 square meters of solar panels, while heat and hot water will come from a high-efficiency natural gas cogen plant. Project director Steve Hornblow notes that “excess electricity generated by the CHP will be exported back to the national grid.”

It’s Not All ‘Clean’

Natural gas is a better alternative to coal – biogas is a better step yet. But even the cleanest-burning cogen plans are still subject to scaling, fouling and a host of cleanliness issues also found in traditional power generation facilities.

Biomass, for example, presents unique contamination issues on heat transfer surfaces, while gas-fired cogen plants must contend with heavy organics deposition. So while the power produced is far cleaner than coal-fire alternatives, power plant maintenance is even more critical for CHP facilities to maintain high efficiency.

Now you know: cogen is bigger, smaller, and in some ways more traditional than you’d expect.

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