Monday, November 13, 2006


Home Based Combined Heat/Power Systems?

from the November 14, 2006 edition -

It heats. It powers. Is it the future of home energy?

*Residential 'micro-combined-heat-and-power' units are efficient
furnaces that create electricity.*

*By Mark Clayton
| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Down in Bernard Malin's basement is a softly thrumming metal box that
turns natural gas into hot water and generates $600 to $800 worth of
electricity a year - a bonus byproduct of heating his home.

"It's like printing money," says Mr. Malin, the first person in
Massachusetts - perhaps in the nation - to own a residential "micro
combined-heat-and-power" system, also known as micro-CHP.

But he's not likely to be the last.

Since Malin changed his home heating system to micro-CHP in February, 18
other families in the Boston area also have adopted the technology,
which squeezes about 90 percent of the useful energy from the fuel.
That's triple the efficiency of power delivered over the grid.

Factories and other industrial facilities have used large CHP systems
for years. But until the US debut of micro-systems in greater Boston,
the units had not been small enough, cheap enough, and quiet enough for
American homes. Add to that the public's rising concern about
electric-power reliability - seen in a sales boom of backup generators
in the past couple of years - and some experts see in micro-CHP a
power-to-the-people energy revolution.

"Right now these residential micro-CHP systems are just a blip," says
Nicholas Lenssen of Energy Insights, a technology advisory firm in
Framingham, Mass. "But it's a ... technology that ... could have a big
impact as it's adopted more widely over the next five to 10 years."

*The Japanese are early adopters*

Home heating systems that produce a kilowatt of electricity - like
Malin's - and bigger units that pump out about 4 kilowatts are already
available in Europe and Japan. They'll make their commercial US debut in
New England in January.

Of course, other home-based power-supply options - solar panels and wind
generators - have preceded micro-CHP, with varying degrees of
acceptance. Both can be costly and hard to site. Fuel cells are another
much-anticipated option, but remain too costly for commercialization.
Micro-CHP, by contrast, is an advanced hybrid of existing technologies:
an internal-combustion engine generator married to a high-efficiency
home furnace.

In Japan, more than 30,000 homeowners have installed micro-CHP systems
driven by quiet, efficient internal-combustion engines, each housed in a
sleek metal box made by Honda. Japan is ahead because gas utilities have
been subsidizing and promoting the systems. In Britain, where the
systems look like dishwashers and sit under kitchen counters, 80,000
systems made by a New Zealand company are on order.

At least five companies are building micro-CHP systems worldwide. Two
are trying to enter the US market: Marathon Engine Systems of East Troy,
Wis., plans to bring a 4-kilowatt hot-water system it sells in Europe to
the US early in 2007. Climate Energy of Medfield, Mass., has developed a
forced-hot-air system that marries a high-efficiency furnace to a
superquiet Honda generator. That system has been deployed as a pilot to
several US homes, including Malin's.

Such systems help people like Lynn Denoy insulate themselves from high
electricity prices because they draw power from the commercial grid much
less often in winter.

"I feel good about money we're saving - and the environment - because
we're using less gas [than the old furnace] and creating our own heat
and electricity," says the speech therapist from Braintree, Mass. Ms.
Denoy's family will buy some power this winter - and all spring and
summer when the furnace system is not running.

Still, micro-CHP makes some utilities nervous, experts say. "In North
America I don't see utilities embracing it. I think they'll see it as
more of a threat initially," says Jon Slowe, a director at Delta Energy
& Environment, an energy consulting company in Glasgow, Scotland.

At the municipal utility in Braintree, Mass., where Malin and Denoy
live, officials say micro-CHP could bolster the grid in their area with
extra power, if the idea catches on. "If 1,000 homeowners bought these
in Braintree, that would be great - about 10 percent of our residential
load," says William Bottiggi, director of the Braintree Electric Light
Department, which partnered with the American Public Power Association
to subsidize some local installations.

But William Steeley of Distributed Energy Resources at the Electric
Power Research Institute, whose members include investor-owned
utilities, says the jury's out. "We are very intrigued by micro-CHP and
its potential," he says. "It is competing against well-established
technologies. So we'll have to see."

Wind-powered turbines in back yards, solar panels on rooftops, and
micro-CHP are part of a gradual shift by homeowners from central power
plants and toward self-generated power.

Slowly gaining ground, the trend is "not at all pie in the sky," says
Cheryl Harrington of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a nonprofit that
helps states and nations develop energy policy. "The question is how to
get electric utilities to actively support this kind of generation when
it is on the customer's side of the meter."

*And the price tag is...?*

Micro-CHP doesn't come cheap - just with a long-term discount. Basic
systems cost from $13,000 to $20,000, installed. Even at the lower
range, that's at least $6,000 more than a new high-efficiency hot-air
furnace, even after a gas company rebate. Result: The payback period on
the initial investment is three to seven years, depending on the cost of
electricity, say officials at Climate Energy. The company expects to
install about 200 systems next year, mostly in New England.

Given consumers' interest in having a backup power generator on site,
micro-CHP systems that provide that, as well as cut electric bills, may
hold the most promise, say analysts.

Climate Energy won't have a model with backup capability until 2008, but
is poised to sell its "Freewatt" system that chops electric bills by
about 50 percent. Marathon, which makes larger home systems, will offer
backup capability when its systems roll out early next year.

While all CHP systems use fossil fuel, some states and environmental
groups have endorsed them as a step in the right direction. Through
efficiency gains, a Climate Energy system cuts carbon-dioxide emissions
for electricity used in the home by 40 percent, company officials say.

If micro-CHP can capture even 1 percent of the 3 million home furnaces
sold each year, that would be enough to make it more broadly affordable,
says Eric Guyer, CEO of Climate Energy. "I think there will be a mind
shift over time."

For Richard Hillel of Belmont, Mass., that shift is here. "When you can
have something producing heat and electricity, too, it's great," he
says. "We should be doing anything we can to save energy."

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