A decade of progress for decentralized energy

Steve Hodgson

I will be stepping down as editor of COSPP after this issue is published, having spent over a decade with the magazine. During this period I have seen and reported on enormous changes to energy technologies and markets around the world, including the dramatic growth of renewables ” and wind energy in particular. Nothing quite so dramatic has happened to cogeneration and decentralized energy, though there have been changes.

Generalizing some trends around the world: the growth of large-scale cogeneration for industrial sites has been slow both in Europe and North America, but rather healthier in parts of Asia. It’s the middle-size area ” smaller-scale, packaged systems often based on gas engines and serving buildings and smaller industrial sites ” that has seen healthier and more consistent growth around the world. And micro-CHP technology, for individual homes and groups of homes, is finally emerging into commercial reality, led by Japan. Across the scale, technology has improved: systems are better controlled, while engines and turbines are more efficient and cleaner-running.

Good old-fashioned district energy technology has also seen something of a resurgence, led by a healthy scene in the US and, for district cooling at least, in some countries of the Middle East. Renewable energy sources have had an effect on cogeneration too, with biogas- and biomass-fuelled systems becoming much more common than a decade ago. Surely, few wastewater treatment plants around the world fail to burn their by-product methane gas in CHP units to power the plant and provide heat for further methane production?

Indeed, on-site renewables have also taken off. Solar photovoltaic installations are now part of the mainstream in many parts of the world, and recently we have seen the emergence of an on-site wind industry.

But for cogeneration ” combined heat and power ” the industry is still campaigning to reduce or remove market barriers and to reward the environmental benefits of high-efficiency CHP. Energy market liberalization did help, but the culture of separate regulation and markets for heat and power still works against CHP.

I see most hope in the urban energy scene, in which an established thermal energy distribution system can be fuelled with an evolving mix of fossil- and biomass-fired CHP systems, plus geothermal energy, concentrating solar, fuel cells and other sources, as locally appropriate. Where there are substantial and relatively continuous thermal and electrical loads, there’s a way for high-efficiency generation to supply them.

The articles in this issue of COSPP illustrate the breadth and diversity of decentralized energy. A gas engine-based cogeneration system supplies power and useful drying energy to a malt producer in Germany; dairy farms in the US are discovering the benefits of bio-fuelled CHP systems that also solve a waste disposal problem; South Korea has identified fuel cells as the technology to keep the lights on; the Italian city of Turin is extending its district heating network and building more CHP and heat storage plants to feed it; a Californian local government unit has put a fuel cell to work at its own offices; and European financiers are optimistic about funding the refurbishment and replacement of CHP and district heating infrastructure in Central and Eastern Europe.

I will continue to write for COSPP, both in print and one the website. I look forward to watching the decentralized energy industry continue to develop and to deliver its economic, security and environmental benefits.

Steve Hodgson
Editor, COSPP

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