A century-old and underutilized energy-saving technology is on an upward trend in the nation, and it is making its
way into manufacturing plants and businesses.
RPA Engineering in Wyomissing is following a notable spike in the market of combined heat and power systems, also known as cogeneration, a technology that integrates the production of electric and thermal energy into one single, efficient process. It could save businesses billions of dollars over the next decade and could come with a potential return on its investment in as little as five years.
“Although CHP has been in use globally for more than a century, it has been underutilized in the U.S.,” said Chet Longenecker, vice president, energy services for RPA.
A CHP system consists of a turbine generator, typically fueled by natural gas, which creates its own electricity and then collects and captures the exhaust in a waste heat recovery boiler to produce steam and hot water for use in manufacturing.
“It’s an economical concept because it uses only one source,” Longenecker said. “And we feel that there is a real need to educate the public about it.”
The popularity of CHP also is a direct result of the falling prices of natural gas since about 2008. Longenecker said he doesn’t see the fuel’s costs rising in the near future.
“Even if natural gas prices go back up, CHP can be fueled by other means,” he said. “Biofuels such as wood or methane gas from wastewater treatment plants work just as well.”
RPA recently hosted an energy symposium on the concept of CHP, bringing together leaders in the energy industry and in government to collaborate and share knowledge on the century-old concept, which first became popular in Europe.
“The energy symposium provides a unique opportunity for us and other local companies to share our collective knowledge of and experience with this energy-saving approach,” said Richard Aulenbach Jr., president and CEO of RPA.
In another attempt to spread the news, Longenecker recently wrote a lengthy article on the benefits and efficiencies of CHP, which will soon appear in Distributed Energy magazine, he said.
From a technology standpoint, Longenecker said, CHP is becoming more attractive to small businesses and organizations.
According to Richard Aulenbach III, RPA’s vice president of marketing, CHP is a scalable concept, with systems as small as several hundred kilowatts and up to large amounts of megawatts.
And according to a 2012 executive order signed by President Obama, Accelerating Investment in Industrial Energy Efficiency, the government provides grants that cover nearly 10-15 percent of the cost to facilitate investments in industrial energy efficiency, including combined heat and power. Longenecker said additional funding is available at the state level.
The Reading Housing Authority bought a 345-kilowatt CHP system three years ago for $780,000 for its low-income 400-unit Glenside Homes complex a few blocks from the city’s downtown. The authority used grants that covered about half of the cost and projects a return on its investment in the next two years.
“We were looking into some different ways to reduce our carbon footprint,” RHA’s maintenance director David Talarico said. “And to provide efficiency and reduce electric bills.”
The initial capital outlay of a CHP system can cost $500,000-$30 million, Longenecker said, depending on the capacity of the system.
Included in the system’s cost are three main components: a site screening, an engineering study and design, and building the unit.
An engineering firm first would visit the site to determine if CHP would work with the business’ design and process. Engineers would evaluate the energy required to effectively operate the company and determine if CHP is a wise investment.
If CHP is a good fit, the engineering firm would do a study to design the most effective system. Lastly, a contractor would be chosen to build the system.
“I would encourage others to do their research and make sure to have a thorough engineering study,” Talarico said. “It works really well for us; burning gas as opposed to purchasing electric is a huge benefit and saves us about $100,000 a year.”