Dead heat – or how we could become grateful to the dear departed for powering our TV sets

When the lights go out for you, they can be kept on for others.

Dunno much about our electricity-generating needs at the moment – it’s something that’s not much bothered Alf, although the Grumbles are wincing somewhat at the size of their power bills this winter.

But Phil Heatley, our splendid Energy and Resources Minister, last month was banging on (here) about energy challenges over the next three years.

He said

…with renewables making up 77% of our total electricity generation in 2011, and given our target of reaching 90% of electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025, we must maintain the shift in balance between developing the non-renewables and the renewables sectors.

It’s this bit of his speech that is of interest, because the good people of Durham, in England, are showing us some new generating possibilities.

The blog post which alerted Alf to the possibilities can be found here but it simply steers readers to a report here.

In Durham, England, corpses will soon be used to generate electricity.

A crematorium is installing turbines in its burners that will convert waste heat from the combustion of each corpse into as much as 150 kilowatt-hours of juice — enough to power 1,500 televisions for an hour. The facility plans to sell the electricity to local power companies.

Some might find this concept creepy. Others might be pleased to learn that the process “makes cremation much greener by utilizing its by-products,” in the words of cremation engineer Steve Looker, owner and chief executive officer of the Florida-based company B&L Cremation Systems, which is unaffiliated with the Durham enterprise.

It seems that besides grappling with their huge debt problems, the Europeans have been tightening regulations on crematorium emissions.

Coupled with the high price of energy, Looker expects this will lead more and more facilities to follow Durham’s example.

Actually, Durham’s plans have been publicly aired by other media, including the report (here) in The Telegraph.

It explained that –

Many crematoria are currently replacing their furnaces, to meet government targets on preventing mercury emissions from escaping into the atmosphere.

Up to 16 per cent of all mercury emitted in the UK comes from crematoria because of fillings in teeth. Left unchecked, that figure is predicted to rise to 25 per cent by 2020.

This stuff accumulates in the air and water and is harmful to the brain, kidneys, nervous system and unborn children. Ugh!

It also has an impact – an adverse one, presumably – on the food chain, particularly when it is deposited in water and ingested by fish.

And so –

Crematoria are required to halve such emissions by next year and eliminate them altogether by the end of the decade.

Some have already fitted systems which use the heat from the burners to provide heating for their buildings, nearby offices and, in one case, a swimming pool.

Durham Crematorium is run by the local county council and – at the time of the Telegraph report – was undergoing a £2.3 million project to install three new furnaces.

Alan José, the crematorium’s superintendent and registrar, said: “We calculate that we will have far more electricity than we can possibly need so we would be feeding a reasonable amount into the grid.

“If there is genuine spare capacity to generate electricity then we are certainly interested in investigating that. And if it was thought to be acceptable in the eyes of the public we would almost certainly pursue that.

“Apart from it being common sense for us to try to conserve energy, it also enables us to keep the fees down.”

The crematorium currently has around 2,100 services a year.

On some days, all three burners are required but on others, only one is needed.

The turbines are to be powered by steam produced from cooling the extremely hot gases – at temperatures of at least 1,500F – that are used to cremate bodies.

This means most of the heat comes from the gases used in the cremation process. The amount generated by the burning bodies will be negligible.

For technical buffs, engineers estimate that each turbine can produce up to 250 kWh, although some of this would be lost during the conversion process.

Engineers estimate that with both furnaces operating efficiently and on full power, they could power around 1,500 television sets. In return, the crematorium would receive an income from energy companies under the feed in tariff scheme.

But the expensive turbine systems being installed in Durham are not yet economically viable for crematories in the US.

The NBC report (here) quotes Steve Looker on the matter –

“In the U.S., most crematories don’t have enough throughput,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. “Cremation in some parts of Europe is over 90 percent, but it is not over 50 percent yet here.” That is, less than half of Americans opt for cremation. Most are buried.

So while burners in Europe typically run 24 hours a day, those in America operate only eight hours each day, according to Looker.

“A typical turbine system would cost somewhere between $250,000 to $500,000. If it’s running 24 hours a day, that’s a five-year payback. If it’s running eight hours a day, that’s a 15- or 20-year payback, which isn’t feasible,” he said.

However, Looker is hopeful that the situation could change in the near future. “Over the next 10 years, with the baby boomers coming through, cremation is going to reach 75 to 80 percent. Then, this might be feasible.”

Another thing: a turbine designed by a company called Thermal Dynamic Engineering, which produces just 50 kilowatt-hours of energy but is much less expensive to install than the Durham system, will be available in the near future.

A quick check established that around 30,000 people die each year in New Zealand, and 60% choose cremations (before they die, we may suppose).

That’s around 49 a day, although with the appropriate government policies to get rid of murderers and other undesirables maybe we could lift that number.

Yes, bringing back capital punishment will be controversial.

But with or without it, the way is being paved for our baby boomers – once they have expired and are no longer a drain on National Super – to help power the household appliances of those who have been paying the taxes that provide the pensions and pay for costs incurred by use of the Gold Card.

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