Combined Heat and Power: Not the Brad and Jen of Energy, But….

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I hesitate to start this blog with the words “combined heat and power.”  You might stop reading.

Okay, so it’s not the Brad and Jen of energy. (That would be solar and wind.) But what it lacks in glamour, it makes up for in constancy and results. It’s an old guy, been around for about a century. And while its name might not sound green, it offers an extraordinarily efficient way to energize buildings.

Elisa Wood is off at the Combined Heat and Power Association’s conference in DC. So today we are re-running this popular blog that she wrote about CHP in 2011 — with some updates.

Why champion CHP?  Because despite its ponderous name, CHP is a “Wow” approach to energy, one that people should talk about at parties as much as they do solar these days.

CHP units, often used at universities, hospitals and factories, put to good use the waste heat created in producing electricity. Usually, we just let this heat vanish into the sky. But CHP, a form of distributed generation, reuses the byproduct to heat and cool buildings or assist in industrial processes. CHP can produce energy much more efficiently than a typical centralized power plant because it provides two energy sources from one fuel. We know it works because, as the American Council for an Energy-Effiient Economy points out, CHP “has been cleanly and quietly providing over 12% of U.S. electricity.”

If it’s so good, why don’t we use more of it? The US is trying – at least some areas of the country. President Barack Obama has set a target to increase CHP 50 percent by 2020.

“CHP markets differ considerably among states,” said Anna Chittum, ACEEE senior policy analyst and lead author of ACEEE’s September 28, 2011 CHP report.

Do you live in a pro-CHP state? Not if you’re in Wyoming, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Mississippi, Kentucky or Idaho, the bottom states for CHP, according to ACEEE’s 2013 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard.

You definitely do, if you’re in  Massachusetts,  Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon, California and Arizona, the top states.

(You can find ACEEE’s latest analysis of your state’s CHP markets and policies here.)

CHP’s woes are not simply a result of weak state  policy. Local market factors, utility electricity prices and other influences come into play, not the least of which is today’s slow economy.

Utilities sometimes discourage CHP development because CHP reduces their sales by letting utility customers produce all or part of their own energy. In addition,  CHP tends to be “homeless” in the world of energy regulation and advocacy, according to ACEEE. Big, powerful political groups don’t spend much time talking about CHP.  (But you can find excellent information and advocacy for CHP at the Combined Heat and Power Association.)

“CHP is not well understood by regulators, not well-suited for renewable energy programs – because it often is fueled by non-renewable fuels – and too expensive for most short-term energy efficiency programs – because its payback period is long and its upfront costs high compared to many other efficiency measures,” said ACEEE. “Consequently, few state administrations or lawmakers have taken up the cause of CHP.”

That’s starting to change.  CHP is definitely getting more attention than it once did. But it still has a public relations problem. It’s not only no Brad and Jen (or Brad and Angelina), but it also is downright homeless. Let’s start a trend to get CHP off the street. Open up a conversation at a party with, “Hey, how about that combined heat and power…”

And thank you for reading this blog.

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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. Sad to say but perhaps one of the leading causes for the poor adoption rate of CHP and its cousin CCHP is the broad lack of understanding around the total net positive environmental impact versus the perceived site-specific emissions in the power generation process. For example, micro-turbines can be run with relatively low CO2 emissions per kW but perhaps higher SOx and/or NOx compared to grid-sourced electricity.

    However the environmental impact must be expanded to account for the energy and emissions saved from the Heat/Cooling benefits derived. Sadly these are often ignored by environmentalists who pursue a BANANAs agenda.

    Micro-turbines can easily exceed 80% energy conversion efficiencies and I’ve seen telco installations approaching 87%.

    CHP & CCHP do need a PR champion!