The power station in your basement

Cooling your car in the summer burns a lot of extra gas, but heating your car in the winter is essentially free. Why? Because the tiny explosions that push the car are also hot. Just scoop up some of the waste heat and pour it on the driver. Problem solved. The car is a natural CHP cogenerator, where CHP stands for Combined Heat and Power. (Note that winter heating is a big problem for electric cars.)

Cogeneration is such an appealing concept. It’s always surprised me that it doesn’t show up in more places, like your house. If you’re already burning something to heat your house, why not do some work at the same time? But identifying waste is one thing and selling profitable products that reduce waste is something else again. The market for expensive durable house-related products is incredibly conservative, even when new efficiencies are at hand.

But change is finally in the air. I was happy when, a few years ago, I started hearing about Honda’s Micro CHP unit. It’s a little natural gas-powered motor that sits in your basement and makes heat and electricity. Does it work in the real world? The answer appears to be yes, to judge by local press stories and YouTube videos.

I was especially glad to come across a Jon Udell interview with someone who works for Freewatt. Freewatt installs (and adds value to) the Honda CHP system. The interview helped convince me that the Micro CHP revolution is the real deal. If you live in a cold climate and you need to replace your furnace, please consider buying one of these.

Power plants in the basement

Have you ever wondered what happens to all the heat they generate at the power plant? They burn tons and tons of coal to make steam, the steam spins the turbine, the turbine makes electricity, which they distribute and sell. Everything else is just managing the consequences, because now you’ve got a lot of excess smoke, ash, and heat to deal with. Smoke and ash aren’t so useful, but you should be able to do something with all that heat, right? But like the natural gas that they’re constantly flaring on oil rigs, while it’s true that they CAN do something useful with it, economically it’s not worth their while. Just send it up the stack and be done with it.

So here’s an appealing story: if you install your own electric power plant in your basement, you’re in a good position to benefit from the heat. Even though your economies of scale are nothing like what they have at the power plant, you gain a lot of efficiency by cutting your heating bill and avoiding losses associated with long-distance power distribution. If you live in a place that requires a fair amount of winter heating, it actually makes sense to generate your own electricity. The technology is called micro-combined heat and power (Micro CHP) and if you live in the Northeast, you can get it now: ‘Power plants’ in the basement heat up.

In a related story, if you produce a sitcom in your own house, it is guaranteed to be funnier and have a lower carbon footprint than a typical Hollywood sitcom. Losses due to long-distance humor transport are horrendous.

Ha ha.