Domestic CHP offers the potentialfor households in the UK to generatetheir own electricity. We could seeenergy bills fall radically and carbondioxide emissions reduced. But thetechnology just has not taken off.Fred Starr explains some of thechallenges and the benefits of Domestic CHP with particular reference to one possible power generator, the Stirling engine.
The 21st century will see the conceptof ‘Domestic’ CHP (Combined Heatand Power) turning from a pipe dreamto commercial reality. In a nutshell, theprinciple of Domestic CHP is toproduce most of the electricity needs of a single household using a miniaturegenerator driven by a small engine.In the UK and Northern Europe,such an engine would be fuelled bynatural gas. The waste heat from theengine would go into the householdcentral heating system, offsetting in partthe fuel that would normally be burnt inthe gas boiler. The central heating boilerwould contain the engine–generatorcombination to produce electricity, plusan ancillary boiler to producesupplemental heat. This would beneeded when the waste heat from theengine was insufficient for householdneeds (see Figure 1).Like other forms of combined heatand power, Domestic CHP will result insubstantial energy savings. Pushed toits limit, Domestic CHP could supply allof the electric power that the UKdemands. In so doing, it would useabout two thirds of the natural gas usedin the best combined cycle plants. Ittherefore gives the promise of extendingNorth Sea gas reserves and of reducingCO
emissions. For the consumer therewould also be substantial gains. Although domestic gas consumptionwould rise, the consumer could expectto reduce energy bills by between £100and £200 per year.
Power units for DomesticCHP
For Domestic CHP to become realitythe choice of prime mover, that is the‘engine’ which converts the fuel energyin natural gas to electrical ormechanical power, should be logicaland realistic. However, every system forproducing ‘domestic power’ presentlyhas some sort of Achilles heel.I believe that, in the near term atleast, the Stirling engine is the best of the available options. But there aremany myths that surround this type of prime mover. One intention of thisreview is to inject a measure of objectivity into the claims that are oftenmade for Stirling engines. Another is toconsider why the time is ripe forDomestic CHP and how, in the longerterm, it could provide a secure basis forpower generation in this country andelsewhere.What then are the main contenders,apart from the Stirling engine? Perhapsthe most obvious is the internalcombustion engine, the power unit inevery car and truck. Its majorshortcoming is the high level of carbonmonoxide in the exhaust. Despite theuse of catalytic converters to reduceCO levels, safety issues preclude theuse of such an engine in the house.Gas turbines would seem to be anothernear-term option. Here again there aresafety and cost considerations. The gassupply would need to be pressurisedso that the risks of an explosion, if therewere leakage, would be very high. That is all that what might be termed‘normal technology’ has to offer. Mostof the drawbacks of internal
i n g e n i a
FRED STARR MIM CEng
ENERGY AND MATERIALSCONSULTANT, EUROPEAN TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT LTDINNOVATIONS
Power fromthe people
Stirling engines forDomestic CHP