As Hurricane Sandy raged outside and caused power outages for millions of residents, Princeton University’s campus stayed bright and warm thanks to its highly efficient, natural-gas fired Cogeneration Plant.
Cogeneration allows services to continue to operate when the electricity grid is down. This is vital for institutions and facilities with critical services, such as hospitals. In a video produced by Princeton’s newspaper “The Prince,” the plant’s operators explain how the plant functions on a day to day basis, and how they responded during the storm.
On a normal day, Princeton’s plant provides all of the steam and about half of the electricity for the campus. The rest of the electricity is provided by PSE&G. Princeton’s plant uses a natural gas-fired turbine to create heat to make steam to warm the campus. The gas turbine also fires a generator that, during the Hurricane, was able to power the entire campus when regular service went out.
Cogeneration plants, also known as combined heat and power (CHP), simultaneously generate electricity and useful heat to increase the overall efficiency of a system. With traditional electricity generation, more than two-thirds of the primary energy used to generate power is lost as heat, and only one third is available as useful electrical energy. By capturing and using heat that would otherwise be wasted, CHP is more efficient than traditional separate electricity generation and heat production, thereby using less fuel and emitting lower levels of greenhouse gases for the same amount of energy.
Natural gas is the primary fuel for CHP – like Princeton’s plant, more than 70 percent of CHP uses natural gas. CHP is used predominantly in industrial applications, but as is evident with the Princeton example, CHP serves as a cost-effective solution for heating and cooling for commercial buildings and institutions like universities.
In addition to its use of clean, abundant energy resources, CHP technologies create demand for highly skilled American labor and technology. Yet today, CHP is vastly underused, with just eight percent of electricity in the U.S. generated from CHP turbines. Even at its current rate, CHP use in the U.S. avoids more than 1.9 quadrillion Btu of fuel consumption and 248 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.
That’s equivalent to removing more than 45 million cars from the road.
The White House has taken note of this opportunity. On August 30, the President signed an Executive Order that set a national goal of deploying 40 gigawatts of new CHP in the United States by the end of 2020. This would increase the total amount of CHP installed by 50 percent. The use of more CHP means that we can look forward to a cleaner, more affordable and more energy-efficient future.
Princeton made a smart choice by investing in a cogeneration plant when they built it in 1995. Adding the efficiency of CHP to the low cost of domestically-produced natural gas means that greater use of natural gas-fired CHP technologies will deliver cost savings for users and help improve our environment. And as we saw during Hurricane Sandy, the reliability of these plants and their ability to power a generator during a storm makes them an even smarter choice.