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Energy Times Two

If your laboratory has its own dedicated power plant or is part of an industrial facility, you may be able to drastically reduce the amount of energy you purchase while reducing your labs carbon footprint.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Energy Recycling Reduces Both Laboratory Operating Costs and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Is your laboratory a large one with its own dedicated power plant or part of an industrial facility such as a chemical plant or oil refinery? If so, you may be able to drastically reduce the amount of energy you purchase while reducing your lab’s carbon footprint. How is this possible?

The American economy uses energy at only 13 percent efficiency, according to Robert Ayres and Edward Ayres, brothers and co-authors of the recently published book Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future.1 Most of the rest is discarded, typically in the form of waste heat. If recovered, this energy could be used to generate electricity or in other useful—and profitable—applications.

“Since the wasted heat is free and the CO2 produced in creating it is emitted whether or not the waste energy is recovered, this energy is effectively CO2-free,” notes former vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore.2 “Capturing this energy to displace yet more carbon fuel would simultaneously reduce CO2 emissions and the cost of energy, thereby increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of industries and businesses that would gain the benefit of reduced electricity costs,” he adds. Generating power from waste energy receives no government subsidies. But it doesn’t need them. The savings are great enough that recycling waste energy makes economic sense without government subsidies.

Former Vice President Al Gore speaking on energy and climate change at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting.

This creates exciting opportunities for lab managers and their organizations. By using this essentially free waste energy in the lab to control climate; heat water; and power instruments, lights and computers, some lab managers will be able to both decrease their power costs and reduce their carbon footprint. The carbon is reduced because the fuel originally used to create this energy has already been burned; thus, recycling the waste energy results in no additional release of CO2. Research projects to recycle energy at your company’s plants and customer facilities also can create new profits for your firm.

Industrial energy recycling offers a huge potential for reducing energy consumption and costs, according to Thomas Casten, chairman of Recycled Energy Development LLC. Energy recycling is often overlooked while romantic images of alternative energy technology such as wind turbines and solar panels permeate current political discourse. However, Casten noted at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Numbers show that energy recycling is just as vital. Studies done for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy suggest that the nation has enough recoverable waste energy to provide 40 percent of our power and slash global warming pollution by 20 percent.” Various forms of recyclable waste energy represent an estimated 100 gigawatts (GW) of potential electric capacity, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientists.3 This is equivalent to about 10 percent of the total current U.S. electricity generation capacity.

Achieving this level of energy recycling would require little if any additional fuel consumption while reducing the need to construct expensive new power plants that could produce substantial amounts of greenhouse gases.4 Today the energy efficiency of a typical power plant is 34 percent, a level that hasn’t increased since the 1960s.5 In contrast, energy recycling can achieve efficiencies of 60 to 90 percent, according to Allan Sears, vice president, M&A and development, Primary Energy/EPCOR USA.6 Achieving this level of energy recycling would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 400 million metric tons annually.3

In his AAAS presentation (see sidebar), Casten provided examples of firms that have simultaneously reduced their carbon footprint and increased profits by recovering and using or selling energy that currently is being wasted. Another advantage of energy recycling projects is that they can avoid the lengthy lead times associated with permitting processes required before new power plants can be constructed.

Speakers Thomas Casten and Lester Lave on the podium at the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting.

What about laboratories?

Lab managers can employ energy recycling to help their employers substantially reduce both laboratory operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Production of heat and power from the waste energy of an industrial process is traditionally called cogeneration, or combined heat and power (CHP). However, the term “energy recycling” emphasizes the benefits it provides. Laboratories at some industrial plants are already using recycled energy. For example, Kodak Corporation generates its own electricity from waste process streams at its 1,100-acre Eastman Business Park (formerly Kodak Park) operation, which includes laboratories.

Many industrial facilities producing large amounts of waste energy have laboratories on-site to perform various analyses for process control and quality assurance purposes. Some of these laboratories are part of oil refineries and may be operated by the oil company or by analytical services firms. For example,Intertek Caleb Brett operates former corporate analytical laboratories located at oil refineries, chemical plants and research centers in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., various European countries and Australia. Being located at facilities that produce large amounts of energy, these laboratories are natural candidates for using recycled energy.

Other candidates for energy recycling include laboratories in large hospitals and medical schools and on university campuses that have their own power plants. Very large laboratories with their own power plants can design and install their own energy-recycling systems, perhaps with assistance from some of the Department of Energy’s national laboratories.

The role of DOE

Laboratories operated by the U.S. Department of Energy are investigating the use of recycled energy. This R&D reduces the need for corporate laboratories to conduct their own energy-recycling R&D programs. For example, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) includes the Combined Cooling, Heating and Power Integration Laboratory. This National User Test Facility tests and demonstrates the use of integrated CHP systems in recapturing and using thermal energy that is wasted as discarded heat in conventional power plants, and it also tests the ability of various CHP systems to achieve resource efficiencies of 40 to 70 percent or more. Lab staff members are engaged in research on massive integration of distributed generation, heat recovery, and thermally activated cooling and humidity control technology, plus evaluation of the performance of such systems. The lab also serves as a National User Facility for business and industry in assessing system components for improved performance.

The associated ORNL Integration Laboratory provides performance testing on integrated systems and individual units within thermal energy loops. Among its services are:M

  • Measurement of microturbine efficiency, emissions and power quality
  • Evaluation of heat exchanger designs, measurement of heat transfer efficiency and testing of advanced heat exchange materials
  • Measurement of direct- and indirect-fired desiccant dryers’ latent cooling efficiency
  • Evaluation of single-effect absorption chillers’ cooling efficiency and turbine inlet air cooling

In addition, CHP Integration Laboratory personnel have developed the CHP System Mathematical Model used to predict performance of CHP systems. Data is collected on both individual component and system performance. The model then uses the information to optimize performance and design of the components and the system. This reduces the risk of inadequate performance when a business builds a CHP system.

As a National User Facility, the Integration Laboratory also tests package systems and models modular systems. Based on competitive proposals, the Integration Laboratory recently awarded a $19 million contract to seven industry teams. The laboratory will test energy-recycling units from the teams from Burns and McDonnell, Capstone Turbine Corporation, Gas Technology Institute, Honeywell Laboratories, Ingersoll-Rand, NiSource Energy Technologies and the United Technologies Research Center.

The U.S. Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory does research on improving energy efficiency through thermal energy recycling and CHP through its Distributed Energy and Electric Reliability Program. The laboratory is funding work to raise CHP awareness, eliminate regulatory and institutional barriers, and develop CHP markets and technologies. There are 18 competitively awarded projects and six CHP Regional Application Centers.

NREL’s Advanced HVAC and Thermal Conversion Laboratory, part of its Advanced Desiccant Cooling and Dehumidification Program, promotes development of waste heat recovery systems and thermally activated technology that provide heating, cooling and dehumidification to maximize CHP efficiency.

Looking ahead

It’s a long road to an alternative energy future, according to a 2010 Wall Street Journal article.7 However, in the near term energy recycling offers exciting opportunities to reduce CO2 emissions while increasing profits.

Indeed, it’s already happening. Today over 85 GW of energy-recycling capacity has been installed at over 3,000 U.S. locations.8 These numbers should increase. A section of the Energy Efficiency Improvement Act of 2007 requires the EPA to compile an inventory of waste energy that can be recovered from large U.S. industrial and commercial sources. Funding for this effort is included in the $789 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009, along with provisions for encouraging energy recycling.

By using their labs as pilot projects, lab managers can help their employers adapt methods to use energy that currently is wasted, greatly reducing the organization’s energy consumption and carbon footprint. As the sidebar indicates, some industrial sites can convert enough waste energy into a useful form to sell it back to the power grid or to a facility located on an adjacent site.

National and global implications

The national and global implications of energy recycling are very large. Casten observes, “Society needs to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and the cost of energy services.” Using the massive amounts of energy that are currently wasted provides a means to do so. This is consistent with the findings reported in the National Academies 2009 report “America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation.”9 Speaking at the AAAS conference, Lester Lave, the leader of the team that wrote the report, noted, “Deployment of existing energy-efficient technology is the nearest-term and lowest-cost option.” Lave is a Carnegie Mellon University professor of economics, of public policy and management, and of engineering. The World Alliance for Decentralized Energy estimates that the U.S. could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent while saving approximately $80 billion per year through energy recycling. Shouldn’t your lab and your employer share in some of these savings?


1. Ayres, R.U., and Ayres, E.H. Crossing the Energy Divide: Moving from Fossil Fuel Dependence to a Clean-Energy Future. Wharton School Publishing. 2009.
2. Gore, A. Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Change Crisis. Rodale Books. 2009.
3. Bailey, O., and Worrell, E. Clean Energy Technologies: The Potential for Electricity Generation. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Report No. LBNL- 57451. 2005.
4. Lowe, M., and Gereffim, G. Recycling Industrial Waste Energy. Chapter 7, “Manufacturing Climate Solutions: Carbon- Reducing Technologies and U.S. Jobs.” environment/climatesolutions/ greeneconomy_Ch7_RecyclingIndustrialWasteEnergy. pdf. 2008.
5. Combined Heat and Power: Effective Energy Solutions for a Sustainable Future. Oak Ridge National Laboratory Report. 2008.
6. Sears, A. Personal communication to the Center for Globalization Governance and Competitiveness research staff. February 19, 2009.
7. Totty, Michael. “The Long Road to an Alternative-Energy Future,” p. R1. February 22, 2010.
8. Smith, Merrill. CHP US Federal Partnership: The Road to 92 GW. Case study prepared for the OECD/IEA. Washington, D.C. us_roadmap.pdf. 2008.
9. Lave, L. et al. America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation. National Academies Press. 2009.