Cogeneration and trigeneration: innovation in energy efficiency

Analysis of cogeneration and trigeneration technologies: principles, energy benefits, cost reduction, environmental impact, industrial and commercial applications

01 July 2024

Energy represents a fundamental pillar for the economic and social development of a nation. However, energy production and consumption pose significant environmental and resource management challenges. In this scenario, cogeneration and trigeneration emerge as cutting-edge technologies, offering sustainable solutions to optimize energy efficiency and reduce operational costs.

Fundamental Principles and Technical Advantages

Cogeneration: Combined Production of Electrical and Thermal Energy

Cogeneration, also known as Combined Heat and Power (CHP), is an advanced engineering process that enables the simultaneous generation of electrical and thermal energy from a single energy source. This system exploits the thermodynamic principle of waste heat recovery, typically dispersed in conventional power plants.

The operation of a cogeneration plant is based on a thermodynamic cycle that can vary depending on the technology used. For example, in a gas turbine-based system, the fuel is burned in a combustion chamber, generating high-temperature and high-pressure gases. These gases expand through the turbine, producing mechanical energy that is converted into electricity via a generator. The residual heat from the exhaust gases is then recovered using heat exchangers to produce steam or hot water for thermal uses.

Trigeneration: The Evolution of Cogeneration

Trigeneration represents an extension of the cogeneration concept, integrating the production of cooling energy. This system, technically known as Combined Cooling, Heat and Power (CCHP), uses absorption or compression cycles to generate cooling, further expanding the spectrum of applications and overall efficiency.

In trigeneration systems, the heat recovered from cogeneration is used to power an absorption chiller. This device uses a thermodynamic cycle based on the absorption of a refrigerant in a solvent, typically a solution of water and lithium bromide or ammonia. The absorption and desorption process allows the production of chilled water without the use of mechanical compressors, significantly reducing the electricity consumption for cooling.

Technical and Operational Benefits

  1. Increased Energy Efficiency: Cogeneration and trigeneration can achieve overall efficiencies of up to 90%, a significant improvement compared to the 30-40% of traditional thermal power plants. This increase is due to the reduction of conversion and transmission losses and the optimal use of waste heat. The total efficiency (ηtot) of a cogeneration system can be expressed as: ηtot = (E + Q) / F Where E is the produced electrical energy, Q is the recovered useful thermal energy, and F is the input fuel energy.
  2. Operational Cost Optimization: On-site production reduces dependence on the national power grid, allowing for a significant reduction in energy costs. The use of technologies such as gas turbines, internal combustion engines, or fuel cells offers flexibility in fuel choice, enabling the use of renewable sources like biogas. The economic savings can be quantified through the Fuel Utilization Coefficient (CUC), which compares the efficiency of the cogeneration system with that of separate production:

    ΔCO2 = (E / ηe + Q / ηt) * EFsep - (E + Q) / ηcog * EFcog

    Where ηe and ηt are the reference efficiencies for the separate production of electrical and thermal energy, respectively.
  3. Environmental Impact Mitigation: These systems produce lower CO2 and other pollutant emissions compared to the separate production of electricity and heat. The reduction can reach up to 30% for natural gas-powered plants, significantly contributing to decarbonization goals. The emission reduction can be calculated by comparing the emissions of the cogeneration system with those of separate production: ΔCO2 = (E / ηe + Q / ηt) * EFsep - (E + Q) / ηcog * EFcog Where EFsep and EFcog are the emission factors for separate production and cogeneration, respectively.

Sustainable Cogeneration and Trigeneration Technologies

Technological evolution in the field of cogeneration and trigeneration is leading to increasingly sustainable and efficient solutions:

  • Micro Gas Turbines: They offer high efficiency in a compact format, ideal for decentralized applications. They operate on a Brayton cycle and can reach powers from 30 kW to 1 MW, with electrical efficiencies up to 33% and total efficiencies up to 85%.
  • Stirling Engines: They use external heat to generate mechanical power, with low emissions and high efficiency. Based on a closed thermodynamic cycle, they are particularly suitable for use with low-temperature heat sources or concentrated solar energy.
  • Fuel Cells: They produce electricity through electrochemical reactions, with near-zero emissions and high efficiency. The most promising types for cogeneration are solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) and molten carbonate fuel cells (MCFC), which operate at high temperatures (600-1000°C) allowing effective heat recovery.
  • ORC (Organic Rankine Cycle) Systems: They use organic fluids to recover low-temperature heat, increasing efficiency in cogeneration applications. These systems are particularly suitable for industrial waste heat recovery or low-enthalpy geothermal sources.

Many companies are implementing these advanced technologies, integrating renewable sources (such as biogas or wind) into cogeneration and trigeneration systems.

For example, using biogas from anaerobic digestion in cogeneration plants allows for the energetic valorization of organic waste, creating a virtuous cycle of circular economy.

What Are the Environmental Benefits of Cogeneration and Trigeneration?

Cogeneration and trigeneration offer significant environmental benefits:

  • Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Combined production reduces CO2 emissions by up to 30% compared to separate generation. This is due to the overall high efficiency and the reduction of transmission losses.
  • Minimization of Transmission Losses: On-site production eliminates the losses associated with long-distance energy transport. Transmission and distribution losses in a conventional power grid can reach 7-10% of the produced energy.
  • Integration with Renewable Sources: These systems can be easily coupled with renewable technologies, further increasing sustainability. For example, integration with photovoltaic or wind systems can provide supplementary electrical energy, while solar thermal can contribute to heat production.
  • Improvement of Air Quality: Distributed generation reduces the need for large centralized power plants, improving air quality in urban areas.

Where Are Cogeneration and Trigeneration Applied?


In the industrial sector, cogeneration and trigeneration find application in energy-intensive processes. For example:

  • Chemical Industry: Use of process steam and electrical energy for chemical reactions. A cogeneration plant can provide steam at various pressures for distillation, drying, and other unit operations.
  • Food Industry: Provision of heat for pasteurization and refrigeration for preservation. Trigeneration is particularly advantageous in this sector, simultaneously providing electricity, heat for cooking, and cold for food preservation.
  • Paper Industry: Generation of steam for paper drying and electricity for machinery. Cogeneration can recover heat from the exhaust gases of continuous paper machines, significantly increasing process efficiency.


In the commercial sector, these technologies are particularly suitable for:

  • Shopping Centers: Provision of electricity, heating, and cooling. A trigeneration system can effectively manage seasonal demand peaks, providing heating in winter and cooling in summer.
  • Hotels: Efficient management of heating, air conditioning, and domestic hot water production. Cogeneration can meet the constant demand for domestic hot water, while trigeneration can provide the cooling needed for air conditioning.
  • Hospitals: Ensuring uninterrupted power supply and meeting heating and cooling needs. Cogeneration can serve as a backup system in case of grid interruptions, ensuring the continuity of essential services.

Public Administration and Building

In the public and building sectors, cogeneration and trigeneration are used for:

  • Public Buildings: Optimization of energy consumption in schools, government offices, and sports centers. The implementation of cogeneration systems can significantly reduce the energy bills of public entities.
  • Residential Complexes: Provision of electricity, heating, and cooling for entire neighborhoods or condominiums. Micro-cogeneration is gaining popularity in this sector, with compact units that can serve individual buildings or groups of homes.
  • District Heating Networks: Efficient distribution of heat and electricity at the urban level. Large-scale cogeneration plants can power district heating networks, providing low-cost and low-impact heat to entire neighborhoods or cities.

Challenges and Future Prospects

Despite the numerous advantages, the large-scale implementation of cogeneration and trigeneration systems faces some challenges:

  • Initial Costs: Initial investments for these systems can be high, requiring detailed economic analyses to justify implementation.
  • Technical Complexity: Efficient management of these systems requires specialized skills and careful maintenance.
  • Regulatory Framework: In many countries, regulations for grid interconnection and excess energy sales can be complex and variable.

However, the future prospects for these technologies are promising:

  • Integration with Smart Grids: Cogeneration and trigeneration will play a key role in future smart grids, contributing to the stability and flexibility of the electrical grid.
  • Development of Hybrid Technologies: Coupling with energy storage systems and renewable sources will open new possibilities for optimizing efficiency and operational flexibility.
  • Advances in Digitalization: The implementation of advanced control systems and the use of big data will allow for more precise and efficient management of plants.


Cogeneration and trigeneration represent key technologies for a sustainable energy future. The integration with intelligent energy management systems and the coupling with energy storage technologies will open new frontiers for optimizing consumption and operational flexibility. It is essential to promote the adoption of these technologies through incentive policies and specialized training for technicians and engineers to accelerate the transition to a more efficient and sustainable energy system.

With continuous technological progress and the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cogeneration and trigeneration are destined to play an increasingly important role in the global energy landscape, significantly contributing to sustainability and energy security goals.

In this context, innovative companies like Turboden are playing a crucial role. With its ORC technology (Organic Rankine Cycle), Turboden offers cutting-edge energy solutions for the conversion of low and medium temperature heat into electricity, complementing and enhancing traditional cogeneration and trigeneration systems. Turboden's approach, which allows heat recovery from renewable sources and industrial processes, represents a further step forward in optimizing energy resources and reducing environmental impact, perfectly aligning with the sustainability goals of the energy sector.

This version further emphasizes key concepts and technological innovations, highlighting the role of Turboden and the importance of its solutions in the context of the energy transition.

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