Re: Marriage of industry and ecology

Date: Tue Feb 20 2001 - 07:14:46 MST

In a message dated 2/13/01 10:21:25 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

> A community of researchers, policy makers, industrial strategists,
> and environmental advocates announces the launch of the International
> Society of Industrial Ecology. The new field of industrial ecology
> applies ecological concepts to the organization and operation of industry.
> The tools of industrial ecology include eco-design, eco-industrial parks,
> material and energy flow studies, life cycle assessment (LCA) and
> organizational
> design.

These are very appealing goals to me. Fifteen years ago, when I began
working in the "independent power" industry, it was known as the "cogen"
business, an abbreviation of "cogeneration", or the idea of building power
plants which fit into existing industrial processes with minimal waste. The
most elaborate of these plants I worked on at that time used gas turbines to
directly generate electricity via a drive shaft connected to the turbine
shaft. Hot exhaust gasses from the turbine were routed through a boiler,
which created steam. Some of this high-pressure steam was routed to the host
industrial plant to be used as "process steam" in some chemical process (I
never knew what that was). That water was returned to the cogen plant after
its heat had been extracted. The rest of the high-pressure steam drove
another turbine that was connected to an electrical generator. The low
pressure steam exiting from the steam turbine was "busted" in a cooling tower
and re-routed back to the gas turbine exhaust gas boilers.

This plant was basically designed in 1983 and also included what at the time
was a cutting edge idea: Distributed digital control. Each of the plant's
components had its own computer, which communicated over a "data highway" (as
it was called) LAN with all the other components, so that the balance among
the input and output of all the individual pieces could be worked out on a
distributed and emergent basis. It was also designed to be able to grow, so
that the original five gas turbines could be increased later. Today there
are eight gas turbines in that plant.

All of this was a real visionary move toward the concept of organic
industrial ecology. (Yes - this was the group that ended up being the power
subsidiary of Dynegy, that much-vilified "greedy profiteer" that now figures
as the chief villain in the lawsuits that have been filed by various
Californian People's Commissars. Interestingly, that company that was known
in 1983 as Power Systems Engineering was primarily created as the vision of a
single man, Al Smith, who could be a character out of Atlas Shrugged and is
one of my personal heroes. Al also happened to be a great believer in the
profitable power of diversity and groomed and promoted a number of brilliant
women and African Americans in his organization.)

As it turned out, these kinds of true cogen plants aren't being made any more
(although "combined cycle" power plants, that at least use the gas turbine
waste heat to make steam for additional electrical generation, are still
occasionally being built). Folded up inside the tortuous history of
cogeneration and independent power are some interesting lessons about how
government works well and poorly in connection with economic and industrial
policy. The heyday of cogeneration was fostered by some hellishly complex
federal legislation that granted tax incentives to industrial companies that
undertook these generation facilities in association with existing plants.
This legislation was necessary because electrical power generation was at the
time the sole preserve of monopolies granted by state and local governments.
The federal cogen laws were a clever creature of Carter-era energy policies
that sought to encourage more efficient use of hydrocarbon-fueled electrical
generation. With the fall of gas prices in the '80s, this kind of subsidy
wasn't seen as necessary any more and was discontinued. Fortunately, though,
the cat was out of the bag and companies like Dynegy and Enron were able to
continue the assault on local power monopolies that has resulted in the
beginnings of power deregulation we see today - with mixed results.

All of which leads to the question of how the kinds of "industrial ecology"
values promoted by the group mentioned in Barbara's post can be fostered in
the current political and economic environment. As regular readers of this
list will know, I don't need to establish my libertarian or free market
credentials. On the other hand, I do have a nostalgia for the fiendishly
clever interconnectedness of the kind of cogen plants we were building in the
early and mid-80s under the Carter laws. There is no doubt that the current
state of simple market factors aren't creating incentives for this kind of
design and construction now; take my word for it. Energy prices don't
support the extra effort they require. Presumably, rising energy prices WILL
cause such efforts to be undertaken again in the future. On the other hand,
significant advances in photovoltaics and power storage will also make them

I'd be curious to see a discussion here about how free market forces can be
harnessed to encourage closing industrial cycles more efficiently and cleanly.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Mon May 28 2001 - 09:56:46 MDT