I heard about a very promising new(ish) product called the Climate Energy Freewatt system a couple of weeks ago while listening to an episode of IEEE Spectrum Radio on the IT Conversations podcast channel. The Freewatt is a high efficiency heating furnace combined with a Honda power generator and a solid-state inverter, that uses your natural gas (or propane) for two purposes: First to generate electricity, and then to generate heat.
The Freewatt isn’t designed for going “off the grid”. Instead, it uses net metering provisions (currently available in 35 states, including North Dakota) to feed power back to the utility provider. You draw your power from the grid, while feeding back when your generator is running, with the net effect of reducing (or eliminating) your electricity bill. It is also internet enabled, providing the owner with maintenance information and operating statistics while potentially allowing the power company to switch it on during periods of high demand (with your permission, of course).
Cogeneration systems like this have apparently been used in Japan for several years now. While its designed for cold weather climates where the heat is run for the majority of the year, the biggest thing currently holding back the Freewatt is the economics of it. An installed system costs in the neighborhood of $13,000. In order to payoff the cost difference between it and a regular furnace in a reasonable amount of time, you need to be paying quite a bit for a kilowatt hour of electricity. Right now, the company is targeting the northeast corner of the U.S., where rates are about double what they are here in North Dakota.
It might pay to keep an eye on the Freewatt and comparable products though, because one or more things will happen in the future to make these cogeneration plants economically feasible:
1. Electricity prices will go up
2. Product costs will go down
3. The government (state or federal) will provide incentives and rebates to increase adoption
I think the concept of net metering in general is potentially a game-changer. If everyone has the ability to generate electricity and feed it back into the grid, possibly via cogeneration, solar, wind, vehicle-to-grid, etc., the need for building massive new power stations practically vanishes.