The standard view of conventional big centralised power stations is that they are terribly inefficient, chucking heat willy-nilly up chimneys and cooling towers. A more sophisticated view recognizes that to turn thermal energy into electricity, we inevitably have to dump heat in a cold place (figure 21.8). That is how heat engines work. There has to be a cold place. But surely, it's argued, we could use buildings as the dumping place for this "waste" heat instead of cooling towers or sea water? This idea is called "combined heat and power" (CHP) or cogeneration, and it's been widely used in continental Europe for decades - in many cities, a big power station is integrated with a district heating system. Proponents of the modern incarnation of combined heat and power, "micro-CHP," suggest that tiny power stations should be created within single buildings or small collections of buildings, delivering heat and electricity to those buildings, and exporting some electricity to the grid.
There's certainly some truth in the view that Britain is rather backward when it comes to district heating and combined heat and power, but discussion is hampered by a general lack of numbers, and by two particular errors. First, when comparing different ways of using fuel, the wrong measure of "efficiency" is used, namely one that weights electricity as having equal value to heat. The truth is, electricity is more valuable than heat. Second, it's widely assumed that the "waste" heat in a traditional power
Figure 21.8. How a power station works. There has to be a cold place to condense the steam to make the turbine go round. The cold place is usually a cooling tower or river.
Figure 21.9. Combined heat and power. District heating absorbs heat that would have been chucked up a cooling tower.
air-source heat pump heat from air air-source heat pump ground collector fp 3
electricity ground-source heat pump
station could be captured for a useful purpose without impairing the power station's electricity production. This sadly is not true, as the numbers will show. Delivering useful heat to a customer always reduces the electricity produced to some degree. The true net gains from combined heat and power are often much smaller than the hype would lead you to believe.
A final impediment to rational discussion of combined heat and power is a myth that has grown up recently, that decentralizing a technology somehow makes it greener. So whereas big centralized fossil fuel power stations are "bad," flocks of local micro-power stations are imbued with goodness. But if decentralization is actually a good idea then "small is beautiful" should be evident in the numbers. Decentralization should be able to stand on its own two feet. And what the numbers actually show is that centralized electricity generation has many benefits in both economic and energy terms. Only in large buildings is there any benefit to local generation, and usually that benefit is only about 10% or 20%.
The government has a target for growth of combined heat and power to 10 GW of electrical capacity by 2010, but I think that growth of gas-powered combined heat and power would be a mistake. Such combined heat and power is not green: it uses fossil fuel, and it locks us into continued use of fossil fuel. Given that heat pumps are a better technology, I believe we should leapfrog over gas-powered combined heat and power and go directly for heat pumps.
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