In August, 2003, the lights and everything else went out in a big part of America. I work at home so it was no big deal for me. I don’t do much to begin with, so being in the dark really isn’t a problem. The Lovely Marianne closed our storefront office in town and came home. We sat in the yard with the neighbors that night and built a fire in the outdoor fireplace. We drank some wine and listened to the ballgame on the radio. The stars were gorgeous that night, and that’s something we don’t get to see too often here on the Isle of Long, where there are normally so many lights burning. How we depend on our electricity.
During the days that followed I listened to the news and smiled as the officials on both sides of the border pointed fingers at each other and tried to figure out what had gone wrong and who was going to pay for it all. I remember the same finger-pointing after the last two blackouts. Everyone agreed that someone should do something, but nothing got done. And the bad guys must have loved this. In fact, I know they did. I heard on the news a couple of days later that some knucklehead from Al Qaida claimed responsibility for the whole thing, and that put voice to the nagging thought I had had since the power went off. You get like that when you live this close to Ground Zero. The lights go out, you think terrorist.
So now we hear that someone is going to have to do something about the electrical infrastructure in this country, but the big question is who is going to pay for it, and I think we both know the answer to that. We’re going to pay for it, just as we do everything else. So make a fire, drink some wine and suck it up. We’re going to be paying more for electricity in the years to come.
Thing is, though, whenever something like this comes along, there’s usually an opportunity standing right next to it. The technology that is bound to arrive with soaring electrical rates will open new worlds for a smart engineer, particularly in one very fascinating area.
For years, I’ve been reading about these little power plants that can produce electricity for a house, while giving the homeowner hot water for heating and domestic use as a byproduct (or vice versa). A few start-up companies have taken a run at this technology since the OPEC embargo of 1973, but they fell by the wayside, mainly because there hasn’t been much incentive for Americans to make their own electricity. Until now, that is.
Which brings me to the subject of European boiler manufacturers and the challenge they’re currently facing. The residential heating market over there is mature and stagnating. Most of today’s European boiler sales are going into the replacement market. The competition is getting fierce, margins are dropping, and the growth of companies is slowing from the rate they’ve enjoyed in the past. Acquisition has been the most effective way for a European boiler manufacturer to increase market share in recent years, but even that is now slowing (just so many little fish available). All of this is bringing these companies to a crossroads. They need to develop new products that will capture consumer interest and drive sales, and there’s an urgency involved here because if the boiler manufacturers don’t invest in the R&D to do this, their budding competitors sure will.
One of these competing products is called the mini-CHP. CHP stands for Combined Heat and Power and this is the newest version of what we tinkered with in the Seventies and Eighties. These small power plants are about the size of a wall-hung boiler and many use a Stirling engine – a device that’s been around since 1816, longer than the gasoline or diesel engine – to make the magic happen. During the 1970s some American car manufacturers toyed with Stirling engines (which will run on any source of heat, including wood and solar), but the problem was that it takes a while to get a Stirling engine started. Who wants to wait 20 minutes to roll away from the curb after starting the engine? Timing isn’t a concern with a natural gas-powered mini-CHP, however. These units make hot water to heat a home and provide for domestic use and electricity at the same time. The gas usage is more, but the electricity produced is incredibly cheap and the overall efficiencies often exceed 100 percent. If the unit makes more electricity than the home needs, the excess goes into the power grid and the consumer’s electric meter spins backwards. That has to be attractive to the Utilities, especially nowadays when they’re trying to figure out what to do next. And these mini-CHP are also very environmentally friendly, another plus. And don’t think just homes; think apartment buildings, office buildings, motels, any building that uses electricity and needs to be zoned. In other words, every building.
Three of the major European boiler manufacturers (two of them having distribution in the States) are looking at mini-CHPs. I don’t see how these major players can or will allow a budding competitor to grab this business away from them. I also suspect that some of the more forward-looking American boiler manufacturers will be doing the same, and I find that exciting.
Much of what happens, and how quickly it happens, will hinge on politics and world events. What will it cost to rebuild that troublesome and antique power grid of ours? The more expensive that appears to be (and do you doubt that it will be expensive?) the better these mini-CHPs are going to look to Americans. It’s a micro solution to a macro challenge, and I think all that it will take to get it rolling will be governmental recognition of the technology, once it’s perfected and in place. Keep in mind that the reason we have an Interstate highway system is because President Eisenhower was worried that the military would not be able to move quickly enough from coast to coast in the event of a domestic attack. In one generation, Route 66 morphed into what we drive on today – surely, one of the wonders of the modern world.
When there’s a challenge to America, Americans make things happen, and we make them happen fast. So not next week or next year, but I think that Mini-CHPs are in our future. Keep your eyes on this emerging technology; it’s going places.