Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and combined heat & power

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By Elisa Wood

Dec. 4, 2008

The universe contains many mysteries. A big one for me is: Why doesn’t the United States use more combined heat and power (CHP)?

It requires an energy geek, of course, to even ask that question. Most of the world knows nothing about CHP, even when referenced by its other name: cogeneration. So it was heartening to see the Department of Energy’s recent effort to educate the public in a Dec. 1 report: “Combined Heat and Power: Effective Energy Solutions for a Sustainable Future.”

What’s the problem with CHP? People are unaware of it – even though it’s been around for 100 years. It could benefit from a marketing makeover, especially a name change. Combined heat and power does not roll off the tongue easily like solar and wind, nor does it evoke an image of efficiency and greenness.

Here is a quick definition: CHP systems are a form of distributed energy (like solar) built close to where they are used. They generate electricity and use the excess heat that is produced to cool or warm the building. So a CHP system uses one fuel to create two resources – power and usable heat. As a result, CHP plants are about 35% more efficient than typical generators.

“CHP may not be widely recognized outside industrial, commercial, institutional, and utility circles, but it has quietly been providing highly efficient electricity and process heat to some of the most vital industries, largest employers, urban centers, and campuses in the United States,” says the report.

It appears the United States may finally embrace the resource. The DOE report proposes that 20% of US generation capacity come from CHP, up from today’s 8.6%. Because CHP is so efficient, its greater use would mean far less greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the report finds that under the 20% scenario, the US could avoid over 60% of its projected increase in carbon dixoide emissions between now and 2030.

Several states are putting policies in place to help advance CHP, particularly energy efficiency portfolio standards. These standards require that energy efficiency make up a certain percentage of the state’s mix of electric resources. Fourteen states allow use of CHP to meet the standard.

CHP also should get a boost from a new 10% federal tax incentive signed into law as part of the financial recovery package in early October. The credit applies to small and medium-sized CHP projects.

That still leaves the problem of the brand name. Suggestions welcome! Preferably something that could make combined heat and power the “Brangelina” of the energy world.

Visit Elisa Wood at and pick up her free Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. In Japan, we are familiar with the term “Co-gene (pronunced ko-je-ne)” and I am liking that sound.
    CHP sounds like California Highway Patrol…

  2. Thanks for this piece. You’re right that neither cogeneration nor CHP rolls off the tongue. But lately another term has been used: energy recycling. That’s what CHP does, after all, producing electricity and then using the waste heat for other purposes. I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that does CHP for manufacturing facilities and others.

    To answer your question about why we’re not doing CHP, the answer lies in U.S. regulations. Utilities have a huge advantage — a virtual monopoly — over everyone else when it comes to producing power. There are a lot of ways in which energy recyclers are kept from recouping the full value of their projects. When these regulations change, we will see more energy recycling take place.