Steam on the brain

Here’s a figure that might blow your mind. It’s from Lisa Margonelli, whose Oil on the Brain is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in the knock-on effects of the West’s (and, increasingly, everyone else’s) oil addiction. Here, she’s writing for the Atlantic:

The U.S. economy wastes 55 percent of the energy it consumes, and while American companies have ruthlessly wrung out other forms of inefficiency, that figure hasn’t changed much in recent decades. The amount lost by electric utilities alone could power all of Japan.

A 2005 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that U.S. industry could profitably recycle enough waste energy—including steam, furnace gases, heat, and pressure—to reduce the country’s fossil-fuel use (and greenhouse-gas emissions) by nearly a fifth. A 2007 study by the Mc­Kinsey Global Institute sounded largely the same note; it concluded that domestic industry could use 19 percent less energy than it does today—and make more money as a result.

Economists like to say that rational markets don’t “leave $100 bills on the ground,” but according to McKinsey’s figures, more than $50 billion floats into the air each year, unclaimed by American businesses. What’s more, the technologies required to save that money are, for the most part, not new or unproven or even particularly expensive. By and large, they’ve been around since the 19th century. The question is: Why aren’t we using them?

Read the rest for some hypotheses, all discouraging.

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One response to “Steam on the brain

  1. Read the article carefully. The idea is wonderful, but retrofitting existing plants probably has a very low cost/benefit ratio, and interweaving the various processes (since it essentially cycles the exhaust of one process into the intake of another) is fiendishly difficult.

    This is not to say that new builds should not be designed to take advantage of “grey” energy; I would encourage it even at the household level (you can use the rinse water from your washing machine to water the lawn and garden, for example, and recapture warm air from the dryer to heat your house in the winter).

    Of course, existing plants are designed and built to last for decades; replacing the capital plant of North America could take the rest of the century, so the savings will take a long time to manifest themselves.

    There are no “magical” solutions, people.

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