RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The economy is struggling and everyone, it seems, is looking for ways to cut costs. In some cases saving money can also lead to saving the planet. We're going to look at two sustainable practices that help buffer the economic downturn. We'll hear how planting vegetable seeds can lower your grocery bill.
First, we look at the manufacturing industry. Oil, natural gas and coal used to make products is one of the biggest expenses. A Chicago entrepreneur thinks he has a way for factories and refineries to reduce those costs and pollution by recycling the energy they already burn.
NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER: Ever notice the nuclear power plant in the Simpsons, you know, the one Homer Simpson works at?
(Soundbite of "The Simpsons" theme music)
SCHAPER: Tom Casten does. He's chairman of suburban Chicago-based Recycled Energy Development. And when looking at a picture of the cartoon power plant at his desk, he zeroes in on something.
Mr. TOM CASTEN (Recycled Energy Development): Giant amounts of steam coming out of the cooling towers, basically reflecting that two out of every three units of energy are being thrown into the air as waste heat.
SCHAPER: That's right. Casten says for every three units of fuel, like oil, gas or coal, that's burned to make electricity, two are wasted. The heat just escapes into the air. As Homer Simpson would say...
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Simpsons")
Mr. DAN CASTELLANETA (Actor): (As Homer Simpson) D'oh!
SCHAPER: Casten sees heat being wasted everywhere, not just in cartoon power plants, but at real ones as well as at steel mills, factories and refineries.
Mr. CASTEN: When you've learned what I've learned and you carry my concern for global warming, you see those stacks of steam as immoral and very dangerous.
SCHAPER: For the last 30 years, Tom Casten has been working to develop profitable ways to capture waste heat and turn it into power.
Mr. CASTEN: There are many industrial processes that emit high temperature exhaust. The energy coming out is a very high temperature. You can use that high temperature energy to boil water, make steam and drive an electric generation.
SCHAPER: And that's what's happening here at the giant Arsular(ph) Middle Steel Mill in East Chicago, Indiana.
Mr. JOHN PRUNKL (President, Primary Energy Recycling Corporation): This is a platform. It's about 200 feet in the air...
SCHAPER: Standing high above the sprawling steel mill on an open graded platform, John Prunkl, president of Primary Energy Recycling Corporation, points to a battery of coke ovens below, at least a quarter of a mile long.
Mr. PRUNKL: There is a lot of heat down there. Coke is coal that's burned in an oxygen-deprived environment. And when you do that, you create and release a tremendous amount of heat. Very hot - probably 2,500 degrees.
SCHAPER: And this excess heat used to just drift away, but ten years ago Primary Energy contracted with the mill's owners to install boilers above the coke ovens to use the wasted heat to generate steam and electricity.
Mr. PRUNKL: We could produce almost 100 megawatts of electrical generation out of the steam that's produced off of the waste heat that we're capturing here today.
SCHAPER: That's enough electricity to power more than 60,000 homes. Recent EPA and Department of Energy studies suggest U.S. industries waste enough heat to generate an estimated 200,000 megawatts of power. That's nearly 20 percent of what this nation uses, enough electricity to replace more than 400 coal-fired power plants.
And it's not just excess heat that could be recycled. In another part of the steel mill, waste gas from the blast furnace is captured and reused. It's a gas that is usually just burned off by a flare at the top of the stack. But when mixed with oxygen, it can be used just like natural gas.
All totaled, energy recycling creates close to 250 megawatts of power at the steel mill. That's about half of the electricity it uses each day, saving tens of millions of dollars a year in energy costs and greatly reducing CO2 emissions. This type of energy recycling is commonplace in northern Europe and Japan. Denmark generates more than half of its electricity this way.
So why isn't it done more often here?
Mr. CASTEN: The real challenge is that it's typically illegal, and you've got to find a way to get around the laws.
SCHAPER: Tom Casten says state and federal laws protect monopoly utilities, often preventing energy recyclers from selling excess power back to the grid or running power lines across the street. Even the Clean Air Act prevents utilities themselves from recycling waste heat at older coal-fired power plants, because any modification subjects to newer regulations.
But with soaring energy costs and an increasing push for green power, Casten and others hope recycling energy can start to get as much attention as solar panels and wind power.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.