The United States wastes an enormous amount of energy. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that 57% of all energy used in the U.S. is rejected to the environment – much of it in the form of wasted heat. The Worldwatch Institute report “Low-Carbon Energy: A Roadmap,” estimates that the annual losses of waste heat at U.S. power plants contain enough energy to power Japan for a year. How does the efficiency of the U.S. energy system compare to countries we compete with in the global economy? Comparing data from DOE regarding the percent of energy wasted in the U.S. economy to that of Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the U.S. energy system ranks dead last in efficiency. Why?
It is common practice in the U.S. to dump heat energy from industry and electricity generation into the environment. Other countries prioritize the capture and use of thermal energy to help drive their economy. Energy policies around the world also encourage the practice of generating electricity and usable thermal energy at the same time, known as cogeneration or combined heat and power (CHP). The Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) calls CHP one of the most promising options in the U.S. energy efficiency portfolio. An ORNL report indicated that if the U.S. doubled electricity generation from CHP to 20 percent by 2030, it could save an estimated 5.3 quadrillion Btu of fuel annually, the equivalent of nearly half the total energy consumed by U.S. households.
Efficiency is a value that should not be limited to the environmental conversation. Being wasteful with our energy resources has a cost. The more wasteful we are the faster our country drains its natural resources resulting in greater dependence on imported energy and increased impact to the environment. Being efficient is about eliminating wasteful practices and maximizing value from our resources. By capturing and reusing wasted heat, we focus on the value of money and efficiency at all levels of the energy system.
I grew up on a farm in central Minnesota. Reflecting on lessons I learned from my parents and grandparents, conserving resources was embedded in our daily lives. Being wasteful was a sign of carelessness. It reflected a lack of planning for today and a lack of concern for tomorrow. You never knew when those used nails and bolts my Grandpa stored years earlier in old coffee cans would come in handy. (I still have them on my work bench at home!)
We have a tremendous opportunity to improve the efficiency of our energy system and increase the competitiveness of our economy by investing in infrastructure that captures and reuses waste heat. A significant portion of the heat energy wasted in the U.S. can be easily captured, repurposed, and put back to work in our economy using readily available technologies. As has been widely reported in aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, increasing the use of combined heat and power will also make our energy system more resilient. The imperative to invest in the potential of CHP and wasted heat must not be ignored as the reuse of this important thermal energy will save financial and natural resources while improving the reliability and efficiency of our energy system.