Sweeping Up Energy Waste from the Factory Floor: Combined Heat and Power Systems

In Killingly, Connecticut, workers at the Frito-Lay plant churn out crunchy chips 24-7, processing more than 250,000 pounds of corn and potatoes each day, and cooking them up in enormous industrial fryers. The process requires enormous amounts of heat and electricity--and creates substantial energy bills--yet in the cold winters, the factory’s 30-year-old boilers were barely producing enough heat to keep things going. Add in the possibility that an industrious squirrel could short out the local power grid, and chip production was on thin ice indeed.

Company executives found a reliable, cost-effective energy solution in a Combined Heat and Power system--a gas turbine that produces both heat and electricity in the factory itself, and in this case, ingeniously used heat recovered from the turbine to heat up oil for the chip fryers, and then used exhaust heat from the fryers for space heating. It's a thrillingly efficient system that has reduced the plant's air pollution as well as its utility bills, while providing much-needed reliability. Just two days after testing, a squirrel shorted out local service, and the entire area was blacked out for a day--except for the Frito-Lay factory, which didn't see a blip in production.

Reducing energy waste in factories helps reduce manufacturing costs, and helps keep our industries competitive. But energy waste isn't as easy to identify and address as scrap material that can be swept off the factory floor and repurposed. Many manufacturers simply don't see wasted energy, because they're not looking for it. Or, as is more often the case, they don't have knowledge or the means to address the problem. Thanks to a new directive from President Obama, which encourages investment in industrial efficiency and specifically in Combined Heat and Power (CHP), more manufacturers will get the help they need to spot energy waste and install energy-efficient solutions. By directing federal agencies to coordinate and facilitate programs to boost investment in industrial efficiency, President Obama's executive order could save manufacturers $100 billion in energy costs over the next decade, according to the White House.

You don't need to be an industrial giant to benefit from CHP. In Jackson, Mississippi, a CHP system kept Baptist Memorial Hospital running in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the surrounding area was blacked out for 52 hours. The hospital's $4.2 million dollar investment saves $800,000 a year in energy costs--and countless lives as well. Crave Brothers farm, a dairy farm and cheese factory in Waterloo, Wisconsin, was able to expand operations thanks to a CHP system that operates on biogas from cow manure, solving a critical waste disposal problem as well as paying for itself in just 5 years. An industrial laundry facility in Brooklyn uses CHP to recover and reuse waste heat to warm up wash water, and generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity on site, instead of pulling from the grid during peak hours.

Factories consume nearly one-third of all the energy we use in this country, so making them more efficient is a key strategy to reducing our national energy costs. Investing in industrial efficiency does a lot more than stop waste--it's an investment in American manufacturing. Meeting the President's goal of 40 gigawatts of new Combined Heat and Power (CHP) by 2020 would mean $40 to $80 billion in capital investment flowing into American industry. Many CHP systems are designed and built in America; they need to be installed in America, and they will help create more jobs in America by making our manufacturers more competitive.

Furthermore, when factories generate their own electricity through CHP, it reduces carbon pollution as well as the load on our beleaguered grid, which makes electricity cheaper and more reliable for everyone. Burning coal to make electricity is a terribly inefficient process that wastes nearly two-thirds of coal's energy while creating hundreds of millions of tons of carbon pollution. An additional 5 to 10 percent of the electricity generated at a traditional power plant is lost in transmission. So we all pay a huge price for energy that never makes it to an outlet.

CHP cuts energy waste down to 15 to 20 percent, as opposed to 66 percent, and, because it's usually used on site, transmission losses will be reduced as well. And when factories aren't ramping up demand on power stations during peak hours because they're making their own electricity, it keeps costs down and improves reliability for everyone else.

Using energy more efficiently across the board--in our homes, businesses, and vehicles--is one of the smartest things we can do to reduce our costs, cut global warming pollution, and break our addiction to fossil fuels. We've already started to address one major source of wasted energy--cars--by working with the automobile industry to set bold new mileage standards that will save consumers $1.7 trillion and cut oil imports by one-third. Improving the efficiency of buildings is another key piece of energy-saving strategy, and I'll be blogging more about that soon. President Obama's executive order on industrial efficiency brings the last major piece of the puzzle into play. It's a move that will not only reduce waste, but help American manufacturers save billions of dollars, cut global warming pollution from our power plants, create and maintain good jobs and keep our industries thriving.

[This post is part of our Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.]

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