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The V12 greenhouse

Jim Hole has a 321-horsepower greenhouse. The Enjoy Centre in St. Albert has a lot of green features — recycled materials, rainwater collection and excellent insulation, for example — but one of its greenest is tucked away in the basement.

Jim Hole has a 321-horsepower greenhouse.

The Enjoy Centre in St. Albert has a lot of green features — recycled materials, rainwater collection and excellent insulation, for example — but one of its greenest is tucked away in the basement.

Hole, the centre's co-owner, swings open the doors of a truck-sized metal cube in the boiler room. Inside is a spotless white 12-cylinder gas-electric engine, similar to what you'd find under the hood of a truck or grater.

"It's like somebody parked a tractor in the boiler room and took the wheels off," he says.

This is a combined heat and power, or cogeneration, system, he says. When it's running, it'll provide 75 per cent of the centre's heat and power needs, cut 869 tonnes off its annual emissions (equivalent to taking 166 cars off the road) and save him $23.58 an hour — the system will pay for itself in about two years.

It's a bit of a no-brainer, Hole says of the system. You burn natural gas for electricity and get warmth from the waste heat. "It just makes perfect sense."

A simple concept

Cogeneration, or cogen, is a simple concept, Hole says. A regular home has a gas furnace for heat and a line to a coal-fired power plant for electricity. That's inefficient, since the plant vents most of the heat it gets from coal up the smokestack.

Cogen replaces the furnace and power plant with a generator that goes in your basement. With the generator on-site, you can now use radiators to tap that wasted heat and use it in your home. "It's a common sense use of energy," Hole says.

Dan Cloutier of Cummins Power Ecosystems is one of the few people in Western Canada selling the technology. Cogen has been around for about 50 years in Alberta, he says, but has been limited to big industrial plants in the oilsands. Commercial and domestic systems hit the market 25 years ago. Europe and Japan have thousands of them; he knew of 11 in Alberta.

One is the 239-kilowatt system he installed at the Edmonton Derrick Golf and Winter Club last year. Like the one at the Enjoy Centre (which he also did), it's a big metal box with a motor in it and a few buttons on the side. It's about as noisy as a big truck, but only when you're standing next to it; you don't hear it at all elsewhere in the building.

"It's just like your car," he explains, right down to the regular maintenance and oil changes. The motor burns natural gas to turn a generator that powers about 80 per cent of the building. Radiators draw heat out of the motor's exhaust to heat the building and its pools.

Vik Maraj has a smaller version in his Edmonton duplex. About the size of a cabinet, he says it's likely the first unit of its kind in Alberta.

Maraj says he set out to build his super-green home about three years ago so he could live near his elderly parents. That led to the million-dollar ultra-modern abode he lives in today. He gushes with pride as he points out its hyper-insulated walls, quadruple-pane windows and massive rainwater cistern.

He got his generator from Japan after talking with Cloutier. It's computer controlled, quiet as a furnace and fully automated — it even changes its own oil. "It's ridiculous," he says, grinning.

Heat from the engine warms copper pipes filled with glycol and water, he explains, which runs through in-floor heat loops to ensure an even temperature throughout the house. The result is a home free of cold spots and noisy furnace fans.

Maraj says he bought his cogen unit to prove a point. Wind and solar are popular, he says, but the quickest, cheapest way to reduce your environmental footprint is efficiency. Cogen doubles your gas efficiency, and does it without needing heaps of new infrastructure. "Instead of plugging the natural gas line into a furnace, plug it into a generator."

Green like money

Cogeneration costs money, Cloutier says — Hole's unit cost about $330,000, while Maraj's was about $40,000.

Maraj says cogen added about $18,000 to the price of his house, but that it was worth it. "For $18,000 [more], we have no electricity bill during eight months of the year." (They don't use it in the summer, as they don't need the heat.) And unlike a normal furnace, this heater will make him money — he plans to sell his surplus power back to the grid next year.

Cogeneration costs about $1 per watt, says Leigh Bond of Threshold Energies, which is far cheaper than wind ($5) or solar ($8). "It's one of the cheapest forms of alternate energy there is."

Cogen's biggest plus is its efficiency. "The biggest savings we can find are from using fossil fuels more efficiently," Cloutier says. By eliminating transmission losses and catching waste heat, cogen units capture 80 per cent of the energy in the fuel they burn, compared to about 52 per cent for a traditional furnace and power plant.

Low waste means big savings. The Derrick Club's unit will pay for itself in about three years, Cloutier says, while Maraj will get his money back in about eight — sooner if he sells his surplus power.

Less waste also means fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The Derrick Club keeps the equivalent of about 2,200 barrels of oil in the ground through its emissions reductions, according to Cloutier. Maraj manages about 47 barrels with his; he'll prevent even more in a few years when he switches to biogas, he adds.

And if you need heat and power in a remote location, Cloutier adds, cogen can give you both. "You can be completely off the grid with this technology."

So where are they?

It frustrates Bond that cogeneration is so rare in Alberta. "People have this overwhelming urge to put solar [photovoltaics] up and it's the most expensive thing they can do." He's been in the renewable energy business for four years, he says, and just sold his first cogen unit this month.

Part of the problem is legal, he says. Alberta's microgeneration regulations didn't fully kick in until Jan. 1, 2009, which made it tough to sell power back to the grid. "If you can't connect to the grid, cogen makes no sense at all."

Another is cheap energy, Cloutier says. "We've been blessed with very low energy costs," he says, which has discouraged people from investing in cogeneration. Europe has about 6,000 domestic cogen units, but it also has pricey power.

And it can be hard to do, Cloutier says. Most commercial buildings have the pipes and radiators needed for cogen — all you have to do is replace the boiler with the engine. Most homes don't, which makes them tough to retrofit.

But one of the biggest problems is obscurity. Few people know about the technology, Bond says, and it's not the easiest concept to grasp.

It doesn't grab a lot of attention either, Maraj adds. Energy generation is sexy right now, so people flock towards wind turbines and solar panels. Cogen is a box in a basement — it works, but it looks kind of dull.

With obscurity comes a lack of support. Apart from an accelerated depreciation rate on them, Cloutier says he knows of no grants or rebates in Canada aimed specifically at cogen systems.

Cogen should take off in a few years once it gets some publicity, Bond predicts. "It's kind of like what geothermal went through four years ago." High-profile sites like the Enjoy Centre should draw a lot of interest, as will an upcoming promotion by Enmax.

The greenhouse industry is always on the lookout for savings, Hole says, and cogen is a big source of them — one that his customers will probably never notice.

Hole says he sees cogen as just another way to drive us to a sustainable future. "This is the way we should be going."

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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