Cogeneration is a highly efficient means of generating heat and electric power at the same time from the same energy source. Displacing fossil fuel combustion with heat that would normally be wasted in the process of power generation, it reaches efficienciences that can triple, or even quadruple, conventional power generation. Although cogeneration has been in use for nearly a century, in the mid-1980s relatively low natural gas prices made it a widely attractive alternative for new power generation. In fact, gas-fired cogeneration is largely responsible for the decline in conventional power plant construction that occurred in North America during the 1980s. Cogeneration accounted for a large proportion of all new power plant capacity built in North America during much of the period in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Cogeneration equipment can be fired by fuels other than natural gas. There are installations in operation that use wood, agricultural waste, peat moss, and a wide variety of other fuels, depending on local availability.
The environmental implications of cogeneration stem not just from its inherant efficiency, but also from its decentralized character. Because it is impractical to transport heat over any distance, cogeneration equipment must be located physically close to its heat user. A number of environmentally positive consequences flow from this fact: Power tends to be generated close to the power consumer, reducing transmission losses, stray current, and the need for distribution equipment significantly. Cogeneration plants tend to be built smaller, and owned and operated by smaller and more localized companies than simple cycle power plants. As a general rule, they are also built closer to populated areas, which causes them to be held to higher environmental standards. In northern Europe, and increasingly in North America, cogeneration is at the heart of district heating and cooling systems. District heating combined with cogeneration has the potential to reduce human greenhouse gas emissions by more than any other technology except public transit.
To understand cogeneration, it is necessary to know that most conventional power generation is based on burning a fuel to produce steam. It is the pressure of the steam which actually turns the turbines and generates power, in an inherently inefficient process. Because of a basic principle of physics no more than one third of the energy of the original fuel can be converted to the steam pressure which generates electricity. Cogeneration, in contrast, makes use of the excess heat, usually in the form of relatively low-temperature steam exhausted from the power generation turbines. Such steam is suitable for a wide range of heating applications, and effectively displaces the combustion of carbon-based fuels, with all their environmental implications.
In addition to cogeneration, there are a number of related technologies which make use of exhaust steam at successively lower temperatures and pressures. These are collectively known as "combined cycle" systems. They are more efficient than conventional power generation, but not as efficient as cogeneration, which normally produces about 30% power and 70% heat. Combined cycle technologies can be financially attractive despite their lower efficiencies, because they can produce proportionately more power and less heat. Environmentally, combined cycle systems are controversial, because the make low-cost power available, reducing the incentive for efficient consumption, and also because they are not as efficient as true cogeneration.
Our apologies that many of the resources cited below are outdated.
We welcome suggestions on newer and more timely references to add.
The Ontario Ministry of Energy
a study titled "The
Cogeneration in Ontario - Final Report" in 2000 which is
unfortunately out of print, and no longer available from the Ministry.
For information on District Energy.
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Last update: 27 May 2005