US district energy schemes pick CHP over renewables

A district energy scheme in Ithaca, US, spotlights a trend for community-led, low-carbon schemes to pick gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) over intermittent renewables, says Rob Thornton of the International District Energy Association (IDEA).

While district energy promoters aim to cut emissions, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy they also crave reliability, IDEA’s President and CEO told COSPP.

‘People are beginning to recognise the limitations of wind and solar,’ he said.

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‘While progressive communities such as Ithaca in New York State often start out exploring renewable options like wind and solar, we see mayors and economic development officials are turning to district energy/CHP to be able to offer robust, highly reliable local energy services.’

Recent extreme weather events had exposed ‘the inherent weakness’ of central generation, driving the search for ‘24/7/365 operations’, he added.

CHP is an effective way to deliver a low carbon footprint, offering efficiencies at or above 80%, way above the US grid’s 34%, he said. ‘Clean, efficient distributed generation like CHP can also provide balancing power to better support intermittent renewable resources like wind and solar power in the grid.’

Ithaca’s downtown district energy project can take inspiration from a micro-grid combining renewables with gas-fired CHP at Cornell University, he added.

‘The people of Ithaca have the advantage of seeing a really thoughtful, well-engineered, effective investment in energy systems on the nearby campus of Cornell,’ he said.

While this includes an innovative use of lake water for renewable air conditioning, ‘the biggest step-change’ in Cornell’s carbon footprint was swapping coal-fired boilers with natural gas-fired CHP, he said.

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