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City Hall is exploring a method of combining heat and power that could lead to long-term savings and attract more businesses to Buffalo. For an area that has long been plagued by high energy costs, this is an initiative worth a serious effort.

The Western New York AFL-CIO Economic Development Group, a labor-backed organization formed to promote development and create jobs in the region, is the father of this interesting idea. It wants to build district heating plants that provide clean, low-cost energy to large employers.

There are several state and federal incentives already in place to deliver projects that are energy independent. Last year, President Bush gave his energy address in St. Paul, Minn., because it is a model of energy independence. A single plant in St. Paul provides heat, hot water and electricity to more than 140 buildings downtown.

Mayor Anthony Masiello has endorsed the idea, and the Common Council -- in particular Delaware District Council Member Marc Coppola -- has supported it as a way to make Buffalo more competitive with other cities. Congressman Jack Quinn's office has been writing letters and attending meetings with various stakeholder groups. This is a new idea that can use some shepherding, and Quinn's efforts can go a long way.

Simply put, district heating involves plants generating hot water, which is then piped underground to customers who use it to heat their buildings. The water is then sent back to the central plant and reheated or rechilled and then recirculated through the system again.

The issue is: Where is it most cost-effective to start creating co-generation systems? Large users such as universities, medical campuses and industrial sites would be places to start. These tend to have distribution systems to multiple buildings already in place.

In Buffalo, the plants would use oil and gas only as a backup. The primary source of fuel would be renewable resources such as wood residues, yard waste and locally grown crops. This could also provide a new opportunity for the region's farmers. There is language in the farm bill that creates an incentive for what are referred to as energy crops.

One of the byproducts of this generating process is waste heat, which can be used to reduce energy costs. As Coppola said, the beauty of this system is that you burn fuel once and use it twice.

As Morris Pierce, energy researcher at the University of Rochester, said, the reason for Buffalo's interest is that its population has dropped by half in 50 years and people and jobs continue to leave. If we're to turn this trend around, we need to look at the factors that persuade businesses to leave or dissuade them from coming in the first place. High on the list are energy costs, which are 26 percent above the national average.

Anything that can be done to reduce that obstacle would be more than welcome. Co-generation simply makes sense to explore. It's a new way to attack an old problem.

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