The poor coal plant: not only does it emit environment-damaging compounds, but even the newest (which can cost as much as $3 billion to build) lose more than half the heat generated when the coal is burned. But in co-generation power plants, that excess heat is captured and reused for domestic and industrial heating, nearly doubling a plant’s efficiency. The process is similar to what goes on in your carthink of the engine as a mini cogeneration plant. When the engine runs, it create excess heat while driving the car, and in cold weather, that waste product is used to warm the car.
Cogeneration is a favorite environmental initiative of fossil fuel companies. ExxonMobil owns parts of 85 cogeneration plants in 30 locations; the company estimates that the technology helps it avoid 9 million tons of CO2 a year. In fossil-fueled China, cogeneration is seen as a cutting-edge technology, and enables the country to prevent nearly 100 million tons of CO2 annually.
It’s not the ideal solution, but thermal power will remain the backbone of our electricity grid for the foreseeable future. If we’re going to burn coal and oil, we might as well make sure all that carbon doesn’t go to waste.
This is an extended version of the article that originally appeared in TIME Magazine.