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Creating Energy Out of Thin Air

Each day in the United States, thousands of companies' burn fossil fuels to heat boilers, melt metals, run engines and cook the food that lines grocery store shelves. Despite industry efforts to use heat from burning fuel as efficiently as possible, staggering amounts literally go up in smoke each year. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 20 to 50 percent of all fuel burned goes unused into our atmosphere as wasted heat. If harnessed, the potential waste heat capacity, in the U.S. alone, could generate 46 GWs of new, clean electricity annually. That is enough electricity to replace (or not build) 92 500-MW gas-fired combined cycle power plants, whole producing zero emissions.

Wind power and solar energy grab many renewable headlines — long heralded as the “golden children” of renewable energy. However, recycled energy, such as waste heat, was left out of the discussion for many years — until now.  Stiffening pollution penalties press the agenda for increasing power without increasing emissions. This is driving renewed interest in utilizing recycled heat.

President Barack Obama started his presidency with a focus on energy efficiency and renewable resources, even calling on the U.S. to double renewable energy within three years. In his challenge to ramp up renewable resources, the President recently stated, "The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.  We can remain the world's leading importer of oil, or we can become the world's leading exporter of clean energy."

The public and private sectors must overcome potentially dangerous apathy, and rapidly embrace recycled energy technology if the U.S. has any chance for energy independence.  Even though the current administration espouses energy efficiency and recycled energy, waste heat remains underutilized as an energy source.  The recycled energy industry has little influence compared to solar, wind and biomass lobbies.  Utilizing waste heat from industrial processes could increase efficiency by as much as 20 percent — not next year, not in three years — today!  We can literally create energy out of thin air.

The DOE reports that available waste heat sources (seven quadrillion BTU) exceed the current production of all other U.S. renewable power sources combined (including wind, solar and geothermal). When compared with other renewable resources, the value of recycled energy is clear. It is fuel-free, emissions-free and very low-cost.

Converting surplus heat into power is achievable using technologies available today and, as stated above, this technology could postpone or replace the construction of 92 fossil-fuel utility plants and avoid the greenhouse gas emissions from these plants. It would also produce power at a lower cost than even coal – let alone wind or solar.  With the advent of technology that turns waste heat into power, the barriers that slow the commercial implementation of recycled energy projects are not technical, or even political.  Translated, we can fix this.

The U.S. cannot eliminate its dependence on fossil fuels, but we can dramatically reduce it, and make a measurable difference by increasing energy efficiency and reducing our carbon footprint. Recycled energy is one of our best sources for clean, fuel-free, low-cost energy and now U.S. industry is positioned to benefit from this revolutionary technology.

William C. Olson is a founder and Vice President of Business Development for ElectraTherm.  An entrepreneur for 28 years, William holds a BA in Political Science and Philosophy from Loyola Marymount University.

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