Foreign Policy Blogs

There Oughta Be a Law


You will notice in this diagram from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) depicting the total electricity flow in the US for 2008 that “conversion losses” account for 63% of the energy generated.  Got that?!  Nearly two thirds of the energy used to make electricity, 51% of that from coal, 21% from nuclear, and 17% from natural gas, is lost as heat.  (Another 3% or so is lost in transmission and distribution.)  What do coal, nuclear and gas have in common?  They are all deployed in central power plants.  You know those great honking monolithic hyperbolic cement monstrosities that dot the landscape all over the world blowing steam?


Those are cooling towers.  If power plants don’t use cooling towers, they will likely draw water from a local river and circulate the cool water through the plant and dump the hot water back into the river causing considerable thermal pollution – destroying fish and other aquatic life.

Senators Bernie Sanders and Jeff Merkley have introduced the Thermal Energy Efficiency Act.  This would provide considerable funding for combined heat and power, waste energy recovery, and district energy projects.  Sanders’s press release notes “…combined heat and power represents roughly 9 percent of our existing electric power capacity today, but if we moved to 20 percent by 2030, we could avoid 60 percent of the projected growth in carbon dioxide emissions in this country.”

An article in Grist by Dave Roberts discusses some of the ins and outs, including the fact that “…a) this is an enormous opportunity to cost-effectively reduce climate pollution, and b) there’s enormous, pent-up demand for coordinated resources and assistance.”

I heard a speaker, Al Forte from Nexant, put it another way by saying there’s 800 GW of generating capacity in the US and it’s operating at an average of 28% efficiency.  He more or less characterized this as criminal and wondered why there isn’t more use of cogeneration.  See this post for more on this, including a comment there from the very good folks at Recycled Energy Development – led by the visionary Tom Casten – that “EPA and DoE studies suggest technologies like cogeneration and waste heat recovery could produce 40% of the nation’s electricity…”

Frankly, I wish that Steven Chu was hammering heat recovery.  White roofs are a terrific concept, and practical, to be sure, but when you are talking about the massive energy loss and thermal pollution involved with power plants, then it is indeed criminal to not mandate heat recovery.

  • Thanks for quoting my comment! Yup, this new bill is great news, and the folks at Recycled Energy Development are hopeful about it. Thanks for your attention to this issue. It helps.

  • I have seen global warming first hand. The best footage I’ve ever seen is in a DVD called “Alaska, The Tracy Arm Experience”, which can be found on Film Baby here:

    It’s available for download. Check it out! It has VERY RARE calving events.

    If you want to see calving glaciers, check out this. It has a lot!


Bill Hewitt
Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change