Touted by movie stars, discussed in presidential debates, solar and wind energy are the technological ‘it girls’ of our time. Meanwhile, combined heat and power, 100 years old and shaped like a box, can’t get a date with popular culture.

Such was the lament that threaded through last week’s annual gathering in Washington, D.C. of about 120 industry supporters of CHP, as the technology is more commonly known (for those who know it).

You can’t say CHP doesn’t try. A clean energy workhorse of the economy, CHP supplies about 12 percent of US generation, more than twice that of the big attention-getters: wind and solar. It’s reliable – works even when the days grow cloudy or still – and has high cred among energy insiders and environmentalists for its efficiency, fuel savings and low emissions.

Yet its name recognition is about on par with that of Jill Stein – even though it’s been around since the time of Thomas Edison.

“People think CHP is the California Highway Patrol,” said Joe Allen, chairman of US Combined Heat and Power Association, which hosted the two-day gathering.

CHP Support from the Highest Level

But all that is about to change if CHP supporters have their way. USCHPA and its allies in the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy are on a mission to transform CHP from a church organ player to Mick Jagger. And they’ve got a major promoter behind their effort: the President of the United States. In late August President Barack Obama issued an executive order calling for a 50 percent increase in industrial CHP by 2020 (prompting a blogger to immediately tweet, WTH is CHP?)

“Our industry is not as sexy as solar or wind because we are essentially selling boxes,” said Justin Rathke, a vice president of sales for Capstone Turbine.

The boxes, which now supply about 82 GW of installed electricity, have the attention of the Oval Office because they can reach efficiencies of 80 percent, compared with about 33 percent for conventional fossil fuel power plants. CHP does this by reusing the heat created in electric production that conventional plants let disappear into the air. So CHP offers a kind of twofer: it produces two forms of energy – heat and power – from one fuel to run the plant.

The White House estimates that increasing CHP by 50 percent (40 GW) will save energy users $10 billion per year and result in $40 to $80 billion in new capital investment in manufacturing and other facilities, according to Kathleen Hogan, a deputy assistant at the Department of Energy.

“CHP is one of the most direct and cost effective ways for the US manufacturing sector to become more cost competitive,” Hogan said.

A form of distributed generation, these boxes are now used in 3,800 facilities in the US, according to Bruce Hedman, vice president, ICF International. They include factories, paper mills, hospitals, colleges, data centers, office buildings, gyms, nursing homes and other facilities that can make use of the heat byproduct. CHP plants require no long distance transmission lines and are typically installed in no one’s backyard except their own (or a room or roof), so avoid the NIMBY hullabaloo of some wind farms or large solar installations.

The CHP industry is gearing up to take full advantage of the Presidential order. While the order does not come with any funding or mandates, “it increases the buzz,” said Allen. State public utilities commissions are now taking notice, and trying to see how their policies promote CHP, he said. And those who are not, are likely to hear from CHP advocates soon, as they hold regional meetings to encourage state leaders to incorporate the technology into state energy plans and policies.

Several states are already on board to varying degrees. Eighteen states have included CHP or related waste recovery in their renewable or energy efficiency portfolio standards. And the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently recommended CHP as a replacement for coal-fired plants retiring in 12 states.

The Obama administration is focusing heavily on energy efficiency, and “CHP is really where we are looking to have the next major, big step in progress,” Hogan said.

It’s not just the executive order that is spurring new interest in CHP. About 70 percent of CHP plants run on natural gas, so with the fuel now plentiful and prices low, CHP makes economic sense at more facilities than it did when natural gas prices were high.

“Different areas that we never would do business in previously are now in play. That’s a great development,” Rathke said.

So, as Allen told the group, for CHP the “stars are aligned.” Now if only the world would look up and take notice.