From Bill McKibben in the latest issue of Orion Magazine:

From his desk in an office in Chicago, Jeff Smith has a bird’s-eye view of the American landscape. Combing through a huge database of information compiled by the EPA, he can, almost literally, peer down every smokestack in the nation and figure out what’s going on inside.

And what he sees is heat. Waste heat—one of the country’s largest potential sources of power, pouring up out of those smokestacks. If it could be recycled into electricity, that heat would generate immense amounts of power without our having to burn any new fossil fuels. By immense, I mean, speaking technically, humongous. Even after he’s winnowed the nation’s half a million smokestacks down to the most likely customers, that leaves twenty-five thousand stacks. “An astronomical number,” Smith says.

Smith works for an outfit called Recycled Energy Development (RED). RED sells waste-heat recovery boilers that fit right on top of the smokestacks. The boiler converts the heat into steam that turns a turbine to produce electricity, an old-fashioned technology except this application does not require a flame burning a fuel because the heat is already there.

RED estimates that the nation’s factories could produce 14% of our electricity. Throw existing electricity generating stations into the heat recycling mix and we could be getting the same amount of usable energy with half the fossil fuel. Why we aren’t doing this all over the place seems to boil down to three things: 1) companies simply haven’t been focused on the potential of their waste heat; 2) the renewables crowd has prioritized “sexier” wind and solar above it; and 3) the electricity-generating biz is not a rational market.

The obstacle lies in the phrase “perfectly rational market.” Electricity is essentially the opposite, a heavily regulated semi-monopoly where many of the laws work to protect the profits of utilities, and where, if you deregulate carelessly, you end up with fiascos like Enron’s calculated bludgeoning of California’s ratepayers.

For instance, in almost every state it’s illegal for anyone but the utility to run wires across a public street. So if [RED CEO/President Sean] Casten’s company generates more electricity from the smokestack of the coffee roaster than the factory can use itself, his company can’t sell the surplus to the guy making coffee cans across the street. They have to sell it to the utility, which wants to pay the lowest price possible for it. The utility argues that it still bears the cost of maintaining the network of wires that constitute the grid, and if it’s not selling to the coffee-can plant, that cost will have to be passed on to, say, residential customers.

This is a conundrum that environmentalists are going to have to help solve. They need to pressure regulators to pressure utilities to treat low-carbon energy as a precious resource, to make reducing global warming at least as crucial a goal as ensuring a reliable energy supply and keeping rates down. And indeed environmentalists have begun to have some successes along these lines. In lots of states, for instance, people with solar panels on their roofs can now connect to the grid more easily, and in some cases get
a decent price for the power they generate.

So while many of us are more used to the idea of gazing at fields of windmills, we have to retrain ourselves to see, if not beauty, at least the clean-energy value of smokestacks, too.