When businessman and environmentalist Tom Casten sees the Fisk and Crawford coal-burning plants spewing their emissions above Chicago, he gets angry. Not only because of the public health effects of the emissions, but because he knows there is a much better way to generate electricity for Chicago.

Casten wants businesses, legislators and the general public to see the value of recycling waste energy. Energy recycling entails using a boiler at the top of smokestacks from coal and other plants to capture the “waste heat”–”and use that heat to create steam, which then turns turbines in generators and produces electricity. This electricity can be used onsite and also sold for a profit. The generation method is similar to the method used by coal-burning plants, but instead of combusting coal to create steam, what’s used is waste heat, which is already created by heavy industries like ethanol plants, steel mills, glass and fiberglass factories and oil refineries.

This is not a new idea, Thomas Edison used a basic form of the technology. Casten has led several companies based on heat recycling, including Trigen Energy, Primary Energy and Recycled Energy Development, the Westmont, Ill., company he founded and runs with his son. A handful of manufacturers across the nation employ heat recycling, including the ArcelorMittal steel mills in Northwest Indiana and a silicon factory in West Virginia. But these companies use recycled energy to help power their own operations.

For waste heat recycling to become more widely used, however, a company must be able to sell the energy to neighboring factories or businesses to make a profit. Unfortunately, in Casten’s view, regulatory barriers discourage this. Though each state’s laws are different, there are generally regulatory barriers that hinder nonutilities from selling power to other businesses. Casten encountered this conundrum firsthand when his company tried to build an onsite 20 megawatt power plant at McCormick Place using recycled heat. His plan was thwarted because it was illegal to run an electrical wire across Lake Shore Drive from the east to west portions of the convention center.

If such regulations were changed energy recycling could take off, Casten said. It creates virtually no extra carbon emissions, since it is using waste heat from existing manufacturing processes, so it can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gases. And it could be a boon for public health since it could replace dirty, archaic, coal-fired power plants in helping meet a city’s energy needs. Chicago is a prime location for such projects, Casten said, since it is surrounded by heavy industry.

“The frustrating thing about this current system is it’s costing us money, our health, and it is damaging the planet so it’s a lose-lose-lose situation,” he said. “The bad news is we do it that way because of old rules. The good news is they’re just rules and they can be changed.”

Kari Lydersen

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and lecturer in the journalism graduate program at Northwestern University, where she heads the Social Justice & Investigative specialization.