Join 3,559 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Unintended air conditioned consequences
July 10, 2012 11:13 PM   Subscribe

As the world gets warmer from global warming more people use air conditioning which increases Co2 emissions which increases the warmth of the world which causes more people to use AC... this positive feedback loop turns out to be non-trivial. Cooling a Warming Planet: A Global Air Conditioning Surge. Some facts about air conditioning and the environment, by Stan Cox.

Lots of eye opening stuff in this article, but the take home message is AC use is increasing so rapidly that within 40 years the world could be using as much energy on AC as equal to half of today's entire energy use for everything.
posted by stbalbach (112 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
One cool solution: underground dwellings. Seriously energy efficient to keep cool/warm, depending on the season.

It's really a shame we don't do that more in new housing developments.
posted by darkstar at 11:22 PM on July 10, 2012 [10 favorites]


Indeed.

This is why, as someone committed to combating climate change, I have become a nuclear power advocate. Because it would be futile to try to deny people in hot climates the benefits of air conditioning, and a massive expansion in renewable sources of energy, as welcome as they will be, just will not cut it.
posted by wilful at 11:27 PM on July 10, 2012 [15 favorites]


Underground is good. Or you can cool buildings the same way termites do. (Most useful in climates that are warm year round.) The problem though, is these solutions require all new buildings, and don't do anything to help cool preexisting housing stock.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:35 PM on July 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


I suspect that a lot of the AC load is from commercial buildings. Not going to be moved underground any time soon.

A lot of efficiency can be gained from better house design, passive solar design, eaves, etc etc. But some of these things cost money that developing country house owners aren't realistically going to shell out for in a long time. And still, when it's disgustingly hot, people will turn the AC on however good their house is.
posted by wilful at 11:40 PM on July 10, 2012


We need to use more wind power to run the air conditioning, that way the windmills can help people stay cool.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:45 PM on July 10, 2012


>We need to use more wind power to run the air conditioning, that way the windmills can help people stay cool.

Actually some wind farm opponents have seriously posited that wind farms will heat up the globe.
posted by wilful at 11:48 PM on July 10, 2012


Surely it's possible to build more efficient air conditioners. They were talking about thermoacoustic heat engines ten years ago that could work without most of the moving parts in conventional AC, but nothing ever seemed to come of it.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:48 PM on July 10, 2012


The weather had been getting so hot in recent times, you can't go outside any more
posted by growabrain at 11:55 PM on July 10, 2012


This is totally irrelevant, but I've always felt that AC has a weird name for a product that handles a basic human need like cooling ambient temperature. I mean, it's "air conditioning", right? The technology should do more to "condition" the air. Maybe I like my air with the fragrance of rose petals. Maybe I like my air with more negative ions. Properly conditioned air could feel like a breeze blowing over the beach, wafting over the grill, gently blowing her hair as she flies a kite.

It's pretty fucking abysmal that we'll destroy the planet through air conditioning without having fully conditioned the air.

posted by twoleftfeet at 12:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


Everybody complains about the weather, and now they complain when somebody does something about it, too. Progress!
posted by chavenet at 12:09 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of efficiency can be gained from better house design, passive solar design, eaves, etc etc.

Agreed; I'm lucky enough to live in a 100-year old house that was built before AC and thus designed with an eye towards natural airflows. So basically I don't bother to swtich the fans on. But as you say, replacing the many tens of millions of dwellings that are not well designed to keep heat in or out efficiently isn't something we can wait around on.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:29 AM on July 11, 2012


Actually some wind farm opponents have seriously posited that wind farms will heat up the globe.

Hang on, I have the cartridge for my Buckminster Fuller construct around here somewhere, let me slot it and we can ask him. Ah, here it is:
What!? That's some ripe, rare bullshit. Think about our atmosphere as a sealed kettle of water and air. If that kettle isn't being heated, or say if it's heatless and frozen - there's less turbulence and movement on both the micro and macro scale.

The only reason why our jetstreams move, that we have trade winds, why we have storms and weather at all is because of our Earth-Kettle being heated by the Sun. Unevenly.

Go to your kitchen and begin to boil a pot of water or a kettle. Imagine it a scale version of the earth. Imagine yourself there, somewhere, at the same scale, magnitudes smaller than a fleck of pepper in the pot. Even in a tepid pot - you're facing a lot of turbulence both macro scale and micro scale.

Wind power would cool the planet and remove very real heat energy from that wind, in the same exact way that using steam for mechanical power transmutes heat into kinetic energy. Pulling energy out of the wind will cool the planet on a global scale.

Minutely, of course. On scales so small that they would be hard to measure for a single windmill, and that's before measuring reduced carbon emissions and essentially free energy.

Wind turbines really only exist in the lowest boundary and turbulence layer populated by tall trees and skyscrapers, anyway. Claiming that a wind turbine will heat the earth is like claiming a tall tree swaying in the breeze or mountain range jutting into the jet stream will heat the Earth.

And yeah, people still need to redesign how they live. You could be building skyscrapers that passively cool themselves so much they'd make ice in the desert at night just from the pressure differential, but you're still stuck thinking in terms of short term returns on investment.

Now turn me off and soak my cartridge in some good Scotch, will you? It's impossibly dry in here.
posted by loquacious at 12:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [37 favorites]


Yeah, we are facing a doubling or even tripling of the world's middle class in the near future. More meat, cars, AC -- you name it. Yes, developed countries can reduce consumption, but this will be dwarfed by the growth in the rest of the world. Macroeconomics is a powerful force of nature--human nature. I doubt environmental policies could come close to reducing consumption like the recession did. If natural gas prices remain as low as they do, it might do more for the environment (by replacing coal) than wind and solar possibly could over the next two decades.

We might very well be entering a world where, even if pollution were priced well*, humanity would still plow forward. People could consider themselves, in an aggregate sense, rich enough to afford the expected agricultural damages, relocation costs, weather, etc. Doesn't make disaster less disastrous, just means enough people lived high on the hog (read: getting out of grinding poverty) beforehand to maybe make it worthwhile. Of course a lot of this is path determinacy, but I wonder if it's remotely possible to reverse course when we have 10 years before China's middle class doubles the population of Western Europe. Most will not live well by US standards, but they will hit those big-ticket items: cars, meat, temperature control.

On an optimistic note, the huge benefits could even erase the costs. Perhaps the great wealth and human capital that will come with this carbon boom -- together with better (hell, any) pricing of global warming costs -- can lead to technological breakthroughs. Or maybe the world will be so rich that what seems a significant sacrifice to us will be a piddling sum to them. Say, covering the Sahara in solar panels and shipping the electricity thousands of miles away.

The science is quite emphatic that more greenhouse gases will probably lead to bad things, but there is high uncertainty about its impact to human life since we cannot predict how the future world will react. Modern economies are remarkably resilient in the face of natural disasters, so who knows.

*somehow reflecting costs for most people
posted by helot at 2:18 AM on July 11, 2012


I've long wondered why they don't make solar powered air-conditioners that use the sun when it's available during the day, when it's hottest, then switch to regular electricity, or just a fan at night to keep cool.

I just have a window AC in the bedroom, which gets afternoon sun. If it could use that to cool down, when I got home from work I would be fine with just a fan. In my neighborhood we often have brown-outs on hot summer nights when everyone comes home and switches on their AC.
posted by maggiemaggie at 2:36 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]



I've long wondered why they don't make solar powered air-conditioners that use the sun when it's available during the day


Since air conditioners run on electricity, this is pretty much what having a grid-tied solar electric home already accomplishes. If you have a large enough PV array you will not be drawing power form the grid during the hottest direct-sun days of the year. The goal is to have your monthly cumulative kWh consumed by load less than the kWh you feed into the grid.
posted by thewalrus at 3:23 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


...a product that handles a basic human need like cooling ambient temperature.

AC may be very desirable, but I think that thousands of generations of our ancestors would disagree that it is a basic human need, at least beyond a breeze, shade, and hydration.

Only if AC was a prescribed therapeutic treatment for the elderly and infirm in extreme climatic conditions, might it truly be considered a basic human need.
posted by fairmettle at 3:47 AM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


AC may be very desirable, but I think that thousands of generations of our ancestors would disagree that it is a basic human need, at least beyond a breeze, shade, and hydration

To be pedantic, thousands of generations of our ancestors would say the same about health care, a functioning police force, and the Internet (access to which is a right in some countries). Not that I think AC is a basic human need, outside of perhaps the most ferociously hot of climactic zones, but the argument from dead old guys isn't the best one to make.
posted by AdamCSnider at 3:52 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Actually some wind farm opponents have seriously posited that wind farms will heat up the globe.

Don't they know that WINDMILLS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY?

Except that it seems they do increase local surface temperatures by producing turbulence which allows warmer air to descend.

(I actually wasn't expecting to find this when I googled "wind farms increase temperatures" to find something to go along with the Morbo youtube link. )
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:02 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


"We need to use more wind power to run the air conditioning, that way the windmills can help people stay cool."

WINDMILLS DO NOT -- oh.
posted by kyrademon at 4:02 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is why, as someone committed to combating climate change, I have become a nuclear power advocate.

This is why, as someone committed to combating climate change, I have become a solar power advocate.

For me, it works exactly the way thewalrus describes it:
Since air conditioners run on electricity, this is pretty much what having a grid-tied solar electric home already accomplishes. If you have a large enough PV array you will not be drawing power form the grid during the hottest direct-sun days of the year. The goal is to have your monthly cumulative kWh consumed by load less than the kWh you feed into the grid.

posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:03 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Serious question about solar: do modern silicon solar panels generate more energy (and save more greenhouse gas emissions) over an operating lifetime than is required to produce them? I had thought that number used to be pretty close to break-even, but have not seen a recent figure. I do keep hearing about thin film solar panels or guided-light solar panels and I wonder the same thing about them.

(I also recall hearing a similar problem about hybrid and electric cars in the early days of the Prius, that their manufacture was more polluting than that of conventional cars to a degree that almost offsets their lifetime pollution reduction -- but I'm having trouble finding the magic search phrases to turn up these numbers on the internet.)
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:22 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, absolutely. The cumulative kWh generated by one 230W solar panel over its expected 25 year lifetime is a magnitude more than the energy required to produce it.
posted by thewalrus at 4:30 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


As the world gets warmer from global warming more people use air conditioning which increases Co2 emissions which increases the warmth of the world which causes more people to use AC... this positive feedback loop turns out to be non-trivial.

This seems to have very little to do with any such feedback loop. As noted in the first sentence of the article, this is mostly the result of rising incomes.
posted by jon1270 at 4:35 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Old houses are the best for staying cool in temperate summers. Totally livable if the nights drop below 18c or so to keep the average temps in the mid 20s. During a hot spell where it never drops below 20c (like last week), I put a little 6000btu window unit in the top floor on the NE side and it will keep the house livable at 25c and moderately dry if we're going to be home when outside temps hit 32 and up. Just one little unit upstairs and convection doing the rest.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:36 AM on July 11, 2012


And I would totally put panels on the roof if the ridge line didn't point southwest. No way to get a clear shot at the sun during the heat of the day.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:37 AM on July 11, 2012


Since air conditioners run on electricity, this is pretty much what having a grid-tied solar electric home already accomplishes.

What I was thinking of was having a solar panel on the air conditioner itself. In NYC where I live, I just think of all those little window air conditioners sticking out of all those windows into the sun, using so much electricity.
posted by maggiemaggie at 5:12 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found this FAQ (PDF) from 2004, stating that solar panels (photovoltaics) recoup the energy spent for constructing them in 1-4 years, depending on panel type. Due to increased efficiency, current panels probably recoup the energy in a shorter time frame of their 25 to 30 year life expectancy. In Germany, we are at the point where some of the first panels put up on roofs get near the 20 year cut off date for the guaranteed feed-in tariffs, with the panels still going strong. It is really astonishing what has been achieved in improved efficiency and economics in that amount of time by subsidizing demand.

As far as I remember, wind turbines recoup the energy (and CO2 released) during construction and installation in under a year.
posted by ltl at 5:13 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: Cranking up the AC guilt for the summer
posted by indubitable at 5:25 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is what $28k (after credits) of residential solar looks like.
posted by odinsdream at 5:28 AM on July 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


This is totally irrelevant, but I've always felt that AC has a weird name for a product that handles a basic human need like cooling ambient temperature. I mean, it's "air conditioning", right? The technology should do more to "condition" the air.

Actually, "air conditioning" was named such because it was invented to cool and dehumidify the air.
posted by hippybear at 5:31 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


you're still stuck thinking in terms of short term returns on investment

I nominate this as the epitaph on the human race's tombstone.
posted by Rykey at 5:34 AM on July 11, 2012 [10 favorites]


Thanks, thewalrus and ltl. That is a much more favorable energy payback than I had expected, and the news that new thin-film and multicrystalline technologies decrease that payback period from 4 to 3,2, or 1 years is great.

So new question -- iif the efficiency is that good, what is keeping us from deploying solar on a huge scale? Just cost? The efficiency of storing the energy?
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:43 AM on July 11, 2012


People saying it will never work?
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:47 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


For me, the tree that would shade the southern facing part of my roof for much of the day. I would very much love a couple of kilowatts of solar up there otherwise.
posted by wierdo at 5:48 AM on July 11, 2012


What I was thinking of was having a solar panel on the air conditioner itself.

AC is very power-hungry, so a panel big enough to run even a small window unit would be much bigger than the AC unit. That would mean you'd need some kind of supporting structure. It would be pretty awkward, if not downright ugly. Roofs are the best place for solar panels.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


So new question -- iif the efficiency is that good, what is keeping us from deploying solar on a huge scale? Just cost? The efficiency of storing the energy?

Energy storage is the reason I nearly always hear from people who Actually Know Things as being the major stumbling block to full deployment of solar.

There was a time when it was hoped that a fuel cell could be developed which would break apart water by day and recombine them by night as a means of storage, but that seems to be beyond our current tech capabilities.
posted by hippybear at 6:05 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I mean is, what is preventing solar from replacing coal entirely? If it is just cost, then I can still imagine a future where that happens. Some combination of rising oil prices, putting a price on pollution externalities, and decreasing solar costs could do it, or get us close. On the other hand, if there isn't enough silicon in the world... (I presume we get it from various silicon oxides, and the energy cost of doing that is priced into those "payback" budgets? If that's the case, I can't imagine running out. Or are there pure silicon mines out there? In that case, maybe there isn't enough.) In that case, there'd be no way to get to that point unless these new thin film technologies use more readily available materials.

On the other hand, if it's an "energy storage" issue, that seems to imply that we could at worst get to 50% coal replacement, running our power plants only when there is no daylight.

I'm asking about the best case scenario, I guess. I was under the impression that solar alone couldn't be a coal-scale solution because of poor payback, but finding that I was wrong about that, I wonder if maybe it could be after all? That hasn't seemed to be the consensus I've heard even from green energy advocates, though -- more "no one clean technology will be able to substitute for coal, but if we develop solar and wind and hydro and geothermal... But my question is, why not solar alone?
posted by OnceUponATime at 6:14 AM on July 11, 2012


One cool solution: underground dwellings. Seriously energy efficient to keep cool/warm, depending on the season.

It's a little-known fact that the Morlocks started out just trying to shave a bit off their electricity bills.
posted by Ritchie at 6:26 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


There was a time when it was hoped that a fuel cell could be developed which would break apart water by day and recombine them by night as a means of storage, but that seems to be beyond our current tech capabilities.
That already exists. An electrolysis -> hydrogen fuel cell process is well within our current tech capabilities. The issue is efficiency. There are very few viable huge-scale energy storage solutions that achieve an efficiency high enough to be practical. The only one used today is pump-storage hydro, which achieves a round-trip efficiency of 70-90%. Unfortunately there's only so many places you can build a system like that.

For comparison, electrolysis has an efficiency of 50-80% and hydrogen fuel cells have efficiencies in the 60% region (other means of using hydrogen, like internal combustion engines, are far less efficient). That yields a round-trip efficiency in the 30-50% region.
posted by leo_r at 6:41 AM on July 11, 2012


I still don't understand why I've had to wear long-sleeved sweaters to every office job I've ever worked when it's 90 degrees outside. Why do big corporations need it to be so cold? Wouldn't they save thousands of dollars if they bumped up the temperature a few degrees?
posted by desjardins at 6:41 AM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


It is really astonishing what has been achieved in improved efficiency and economics in that amount of time by subsidizing demand.

Actually, the improve efficiency of the cells was driven by the space program, where you needed power, solar was one of only two long term workable solutions, and mass=money.

And, space solutions tend to demand the very best -- multi-junction solar cells, running at 35% without concentrators, and 43.5% with concentrators. That's the percentage of energy that hits the cell that's converted to electricity. Thin film cells run about 5-20%, crystalline run 20-27%.

Note that, in terms of payback, thin-film cells almost always pay back faster. While the efficiency is much less, often about 5%, the cost is vastly lower than a mulit-junction cell. Thus, the current power market has been great for making thin-film cells cheap, but not the very efficient multi-junction cells, which are still *very* expensive.

And finally, when comparing true costs, you have to take out subsidy. One of the reasons nuclear is so expensive is the massive negative subsidy, caused by the extreme regulatory process and by litigation during build out, and solar currently enjoys very strong subsidies.

This isn't to say that subsidies are bad -- they are a powerful tool to correct the market. Indeed, anti-nuclear types would say the massive regulatory cost is a good thing, and should be increased.

So new question -- iif the efficiency is that good, what is keeping us from deploying solar on a huge scale

Again, efficiency != payback cost. Cost per cell has nothing to do with how efficient they are, indeed, cost per cell is pretty much negatively correlated with the efficiency of the cell. Thin film cells are the worst, in terms of energy per area, but they pay back far quicker. The big generation plants aren't using them, though -- they're typically using mono crystalline silicon solar cells.

Other factors. Right now, if you put up a 1x1.5m cell in a sunny location, you'll get about 300-500W in most locations. You lose about 2 square meters of arable land, between the panel, the mount, and the shadow area.

Wind happens to work very well with agriculture right now -- the turbine is well above the ground, so the loss of arable land is small compared to the space of the generator -- I think they typically eat up about a 50'x50' pad for the big MW class generators that are all over Illinois and Indiana right now. A MW class solar plant eats a lot more. Here's a satellite view of the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center. Nameplate power -- that is, the power it will generate under ideal considerations -- is 25MW, but its average output over a year is 42MWh, which works out to an average output of 4.8MW.

That's a lot of lost land for 5MW over time. Solar's power factor does have a slight advantage over wind's, in that it tends to generate power at the height of the day, when A/C loads are building, where wind generates power more evenly spread across the day.

And that leads to the biggest problem -- the power factor. The nameplate voltages look good, but they do not generate that power 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A solar power center running a 25% power factor is doing *very* well indeed.

The bitch with solar -- and wind, and loads of other technologies that can't produce 24x7 power -- is that storing electricity on these scales is very very difficult. It can be done -- pumped storage hydroelectric is reasonably effective and has a high storage capacity, but you need the right landscape to build it, it takes up a lot of space, and it can go wrong when the upper reservoir breaches, as the Taum Sauk Pumped Storage Plant did in 2004 in Missouri.

So, really, when the sun isn't shining, solar produces nothing. If you could store electricity cheaply on the MW scale, you could handle this -- if you needed a 50MW, you'd build about a 300MW plant, store power when you're generating over 50MW, and draw it back when you're not. But right now, those batteries are very large, very expensive, and have a large environmental cost.

Thus, the big problem with most renewables. They don't fit how power generation works. There are really two classes of plants, base load and peak load plants. Base load plants run all the time, supplying power all the time. Peak load plants can be easily started up and shut down as needed.

Solar and Wind don't fit this. They don't run all the time, so they're not good base load plants. They can't be commanded to start and stop, so they're not good at peak loads. At best, they're "lucky peak loads" -- if they're running when you need them, then you can use them.

The base/peak load model can change if we could store electricity on this scale, but we basically cannot at these scales. So, we need plants running 24x7, and other plants coming online when needed and shutting down when not needed. Right now, there are really four base load plants that work -- coal, oil, nuclear and hydro. The first two are huge carbon producers, but cheap. The third doesn't produce carbon at all, but is expensive and politically dead. The last, well, no carbon, big environmental impact otherwise, and really, most of the best spots in the world are already generating power.

You either have energy storage, massive overcapacity with massive grids (so if it's dark and still here, but sunny or windy way over there, you get power) or you have base load plants.

Which, right now, means coal. And if you think you can stop India and China from burning coal -- never mind the rest of the world moving into industrial societies -- you are not being realistic. You can tell them they can't have that power. They have nuclear weapons. They *will* get that power, and they will do so as cheap as possible, just like we did. They'll burn coal. Even if they covered India and China with solar, those cells will not produce power an average of 12 hours per day.

The best option to keep them from burning coal is cheap nuclear, but that's unworkable.

So. You want an easy answer? Really, there simply isn't one. Period.
posted by eriko at 6:42 AM on July 11, 2012 [24 favorites]


the problem is self solving. energy demand will plummet once we've baked a couple billion people out of the population.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 6:47 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


To be pedantic, thousands of generations of our ancestors would say the same about health care, a functioning police force, and the Internet (access to which is a right in some countries).

To be super-pedantic, those ancestors would be right because there's a distinction between a "basic need" (i.e., requirement for survival) and "nice thing that makes life easier."
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:50 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


What incentive do large energy companies with hundreds of billions of dollars in fossil fuel holdings have to transition to more efficient forms of energy? And with all of their lobbyists infesting DC like rats on a listing ship, what incentive do elected leaders — who live in the reality of corporations buying election campaigns — have to kick the lobbyists out and do something worthwhile for their constituents?

I'll bring it up again, because it completely defuses the bullshit argument that renewables can't work: Germany recently generated 50% of their energy, countrywide, from renewable sources. It's hard work and it takes a different sort of investment, but it's possible, even in a nation like Germany that doesn't get much sun. We have vast deserts and vast tracts of already cleared asphalt that could be turned into solar power stations tomorrow, but it would require direction and leadership aimed at helping Americans instead of corporations.

This is what you get when every last shred of purpose and principle is replaced with profit motives: a completely broken system that is incapable of accepting that it's broken.

Here's a set of ideas from little old me, a regular joe with no college education:

1) Reduce the heat island effect by either covering vast portions of asphalt parking lots with a lattice of solar panels or breaking the asphalt up, recycling it, and creating parks or zeroscaped lots that will at least collect rainwater and not contribute to the heat island. The panels on top of parking lots in use can also provide power to electric vehicles parked beneath the solar lattice. Bonus points: populate them with non-aggressive pollinators and leave them open for gardening by local communities.

2) According to a DoE study from 2006, tens of millions of vehicles could be charged by using the existing excess capacity already available at night for vast portions of the midwest, south, and the northeast. Let's withdraw the troops attempting the annexation of the middle east and instead spend that money on converting internal combustion vehicles or recycling them and manufacturing electric cars. We could entirely eliminate our funding of terrorist organizations, largely eliminate the basis for much of their rhetoric, and we'd be saving money spent on imports and instead investing it in American infrastructure and American jobs.

3) Let's start a manhattan project on figuring out a safe way to store electricity in chemical batteries or some new technology like hydrogen fuel cells. Standard solar cells could be integrated into the infrastructure of a place like Houston that already has massive oil processing facilities, and we could retrofit that infrastructure to produce clean energy from clean resources instead. I'm fairly certain if we covered every industrial park and building that already has an ugly roof with solar panels, a city could easily provide enough power for as much daytime air-conditioning as people could stand.

4) Let's start another manhattan style project focused on figuring out how to safely tap geothermal resources for night-time power generation. How much are we spending on investigating that right now? The same amount in a year that we spent per week in Iraq.

I could go on and on and on. The important thing to remember is that every real scientific study says we are surrounded by gobs of energy, including energy we're already producing, but there's no comprehensive effort to make it a national priority to get off fossil fuels because fossil fuel lobbies own our government. We're suffering from a failure of leadership and a failure of culture that has hoodwinked us into believing that our government doesn't exist to fix big problems.

The reality is that big problems are the main reasons government exist. When you're dealing with long term cause and effect, motives based on quarterly profit are never going to provide a good solution. When we faced possible annihilation during WWII, what did we do? We literally capped the top salary and funneled all of that capital into government directed programs executed by corporations to solve enormous technological challenges. It's going to take that kind of solidarity and effort to solve our energy problems and the crisis of climate change. It can be done, but only after we decide to do it.
posted by deanklear at 6:53 AM on July 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


I've long wondered why they don't make solar powered air-conditioners

They do.
posted by BWA at 6:56 AM on July 11, 2012


There was a very small segment of the article where he mentioned direct social costs of ac, such as the fact that with nobody heat-adapted, nobody sits outside and talks. In our mid-Florida neighborhood, we only see one or two other people sitting outside in the summer. People deplore the danger of the neighborhoods and streets, but streets are safer when more people are out in them. With nobody heat-adapted, the streets belong to whoever can stand it - mainly people too poor to run ac 24-7 and the occasional old school weirdo.
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:03 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was under the impression that solar alone couldn't be a coal-scale solution

The coal companies certainly wouldn't want you to get that idea.

I've long wondered why they don't make solar powered air-conditioners

They do.
posted by sneebler at 7:19 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


We still have a way to go in getting residential solar adopted here in the U.S. There is a love/hate relationship here with the power companies -- residential solar means they get to defer upgrading their distribution infrastructure (as the solar is generated locally and reduces their peak loads during the hottest times of year, which has benefits for them) but then they also get competition in the power generation arena, which they don't like.

If you want a success story in residential solar, look at Germany -- which has 20 times more solar than the U.S. and is projected to generate 6% of its power this way by 2020. There's a lot of crap involved in installing solar in the U.S. that doesn't exist over there. And god help you if you have an HOA.

Saying, there's easy incremental changes that lots of people would like to make but there's way too much friction.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2012


toodleydoodley: I was just remarking to one of my more countrified cousins how surreal it is living in a suburb now with kids of my own after growing up in an unincorporated backwater in Florida (Bayou George). When I was a kid in the country, even though there were hardly any of us kids living out there, sometimes with miles of dirt road between our houses, somehow we always managed to find each other and spend just about every day we weren't in school running around outside barefoot, getting into trouble.

Yet now, as an adult living in a working class suburbs with kids of my own, our neighborhood is packed with kids--nearly every other house on our street has a family with kids living in it, and yet, looking out the window on most any given day, you might think we lived in a ghost town, and most of the kids in the neighborhood are unknown and for all practical purposes invisible to each other. It's weird.

Whatever happened to our culture over the last 50 years or so to make our communities so toxically paranoid and disconnected, it's at the root of many of our other problems, including our inability to come to any constructive consensus on big issues like a collective, concerted response to AGW, IMO.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:35 AM on July 11, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's too bad people associate living underground with low social class and poorness/desperation/bachelorhood.
posted by tehloki at 7:40 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or evil genius.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:42 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of crap involved in installing solar in the U.S.

There's also the fact that, however interesting the technology, solar is not hot now among venture capitalists.
posted by BWA at 7:43 AM on July 11, 2012


What I was thinking of was having a solar panel on the air conditioner itself.

I think you're vastly underestimating the power AC requires.
posted by odinsdream at 7:48 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Roofs are the best place for solar panels.

With the added advantage of casting shade, and doing a little passive cooling in the process. All this talk of giant solar arrays in the stinking desert is great, & I'm all for it, but there's so much available roof space that the mind boggles. Think about it when you're driving around -- look at all the warehouses & apartment blocks with big flat roofs, then imagine them with solar arrays on top. This has the doubly-added advantage of not taking up any more land practically than we've already taken up with the buildings themselves.

I really want to do this with my house, and am going to start looking into financing/city rebate options again, probably when I'm done paying for my daughter's college tuition.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:49 AM on July 11, 2012


Venture Capitalists: Misallocating capital just as efficiently as possible.

I think you're vastly underestimating the power AC requires.


Yeah, AC is basically an appliance whose sole function is to create a local reversal of the laws of thermodynamics. It's a pretty serious and significant piece of reality engineering we take for granted, and defying basic physical laws--even if only on a small scale--takes a lot of energy to pull off.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:52 AM on July 11, 2012


And, space solutions tend to demand the very best -- multi-junction solar cells, running at 35% without concentrators, and 43.5% with concentrators. That's the percentage of energy that ....

By the time I got this far into the comment I had a feeling I knew who was commenting and that I'd agree with the views expressed. I was right on both counts.

Peak load requirements, subsidies here and there, arable land costs, repayment over lifetime figures, comparisons between coal/nuclear/wind/solar/hydro pumping storage, the whole shebang. I feel like eriko relayed the basic problem that all this boils down to when people pop up and say "Duh, Solar/Wind is the solution, look how awesome it is, how can you even mildly support nuclear or coal?" It's not so much that some people, myself included, are pro-nuclear (or, god-forbid, pro-coal). It's that when the rubber meets the road with regards to the politics/economics/engineering side of things it really becomes "It's complicated".

I think you're vastly underestimating the power AC requires.

I see this so often that it hurts, I couldn't agree more. Residential HVAC accounts for a high percentage of the energy usage in a home. A quick googling yields a cite that shows 43%* of a home's usage though that may not be completely up to date I believe it and it sounds right to my inner ME. Slapping on a PV solar panel to solve that sort of energy need would be great but it's just not in most people's pocketbooks and the money could be much better spent on (ideally) building the residence intelligently/efficiently in the first place or even in retrofits to improve efficiency. I can't help but compare it to the rash of Hybrid SUVs I've seen people driving around in the last few years. People want to be greener, but often times their thinking just isn't lining up with their actions.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:59 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just to throw some ballpark figures at the AC thing, the $28k solar system I linked to above at peak operating efficiency and maximum output could maybe barely run the AC compressor for our 1200 square foot home, with nothing left for any other electrical device.
posted by odinsdream at 8:00 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not so much that some people, myself included, are pro-nuclear (or, god-forbid, pro-coal). It's that when the rubber meets the road with regards to the politics/economics/engineering side of things it really becomes "It's complicated".

But how does nuclear even make economic sense when you consider that generating even one watt of nuclear power requires an up-front investment in the millions if not billions to do right? That's not an exaggeration. It's really expensive to get nuclear production started properly and those costs can't be skimped on without potentially disastrous and costly consequences down the road. Why insist on the solution that's the most expensive and one of the most difficult from an engineering perspective?
posted by saulgoodman at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2012


Agreed; I'm lucky enough to live in a 100-year old house that was built before AC and thus designed with an eye towards natural airflows. So basically I don't bother to swtich the fans on. But as you say, replacing the many tens of millions of dwellings that are not well designed to keep heat in or out efficiently isn't something we can wait around on.

I rent a 40 year old house with shitty-to-nonexistent insulation. Just fixing that one thing would reduce my A/C and heating energy use by a tremendous amount. A national initiative with subsidies and tax breaks to get homeowners (like my landlord) to do this would be extremely effective in reducing energy use, but also would result in anguished cries of nanny-stating. Much like the resistance to more efficient car engines, restrictions on plastic bag use, etc.
posted by emjaybee at 8:10 AM on July 11, 2012


Actually, "air conditioning" was named such because it was invented to cool and dehumidify the air.
posted by hippybear at 8:31 AM on July 11 [+] [!]


The dehumidifying actually dries out my nose unpleasantly - didn't figure that out until I moved out of a house with air conditioning into an apartment where we only turn it on some of the time.

I understand why people have air conditioning - we've been turning it on for the worst days - but I'm also thinking I really need to wean myself off it. It doesn't help that my work blasts it and I have no choice about that. But most of us don't need it to survive.
posted by jb at 8:11 AM on July 11, 2012


RolandOfEld is spot on. There's a guy in Colorado with an efficiently designed house who is growing bananas at an elevation of 9,000 feet using nothing but passive solar. He also powers the rest of his house with a single bank of solar panels using technology from the late 1990s/early 2000s.

Our energy crisis is a failure of leadership in implementing effective energy regulations.
posted by deanklear at 8:11 AM on July 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


That's not an exaggeration. It's really expensive to get nuclear production started properly and those costs can't be skimped on without potentially disastrous and costly consequences down the road.

I don't disagree with the upfront cost you state, but the benefit is that it puts out alot of power whenever you call for it. You have to understand that the problem, as eriko stated more succinctly than I can, lies in supplying for peak demand. Couple that with the fact that we don't have great energy storage solutions or a grid that's all that stable/awesome and the fact that solar isn't known for putting out alot of power out when we beck and call for it and it becomes... maybe a bit more understandable.

Why insist on the solution that's the most expensive and one of the most difficult from an engineering perspective?

You uncharacteristic me when you say I insist that is *the* solution. If I must pin it down to one thing that would be even close to *the* solution it would be two-fold: a reduction in expectations/usage of energy worldwide followed by an increase in the efficient utilization of the energy we do consume. Anything else is going to be have to be multifaceted and extremely complex, as I tried to convey in my previous comment.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:18 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


*sigh* uncharacteristic? I mean "mischaracterize".. which it seems from spell check may not be a word.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:19 AM on July 11, 2012


eriko -- a couple of questions. 1) Is there is a reason I should care about the efficiency in converting light to power? Isn't the (energy invested to manufacture and install / energy produced) more important from a climate POV, and the (cost to manufacture and install / cost to produce) more important from a practical implementation point of view? It seems to me that thin films win on both counts, even if they are poor at turning all the light that falls on them into usuable electric energy? Who cares if I'm wasting sunlight? Or is it that "arable land" issue that leads you to imply we should be investing more in those mult-junction cells? 2) Do you really think that the shortage of sheer area is a barrier? I understand why we might not want to erect these over farm land, and I get that it may take more area than all the rooftops in a city can provide to power that city (true?) But there are vast tracts of uncultivated land (and water!) in the US, at least. I find it hard to believe that we are limited by available space. (Though perhaps shading too much uncultivated land has environmental effects of its own -- counter to those of global warming would think.) 3) Your wikipedia link suggests that pumped storage hydroelectric currently mostly relies on pumping water between to natural bodies which are separated by a height difference, which would (I understand) require a special landscape, but what is wrong with building a bunch of towers, or digging a bunch of wells, or using natural underground reservoirs, or pumping air underwater, as the wikipedia link mentions? Is there a physical reason pumped storage can't be vastly expanded by these means, or have we just lacked the motivation so far?
posted by OnceUponATime at 8:23 AM on July 11, 2012


Sorry, "(cost to manufacture and install / savings produced)"
posted by OnceUponATime at 8:25 AM on July 11, 2012


It's worth pointing out that while AC may require a lot of electricity, it still requires less energy overall than heating the same temperature difference using most common domestic heating technologies.

In other words, if the outside temperature is 100F and I air-condition down to 70F, that requires less energy than heating the house from 40F to 70F, provided I'm using an air conditioner (>1 EER) for the first task and a traditional furnace (1EER) for the latter.

We just think of heating as being cheaper, because it's normally done with much cheaper energy: oil, natural gas, biomass, etc. But in terms of net energy expenditure, I suspect there's probably more spent on heating than on AC, at least in the US and Europe. Since many of those "cheap energy" sources are nonrenewable, carbon-based sources, they are not only bad for the environment but are eventually doomed to run out.

Incremental efficiency improvements in AC are certainly important, but there's some serious low-hanging fruit in the form of people who are still burning carbon directly for heat. We need to work on getting them onto modern heat-pump systems with a >1 EER as soon as possible, since that uses less energy overall, and also allows much easier primary-energy source switching.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:27 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


OnceUponATime: I don't mean to answer for eriko but I'll hit one or two of those points if that's ok.

Do you really think that the shortage of sheer area is a barrier?

what is wrong with building a bunch of towers, or digging a bunch of wells, or using natural underground reservoirs, or pumping air underwater

These both boil down to the same problem and that's the energy losses conferred when energy changes form. It's a first law of thermo thing.

To the area problem: So if you want to have your solar cells/solar thermal plant in a desert then you're likely not wanting to supply electricity to people living next door. They're going to be over the horizon. This requires a suitable grid to convey that power to the users. Distance means losses along the line, as does the conversions from AC-->DC or from various voltages to other voltages. There's solutions out there but of course money and the will to implement is the problem. Of course if you want to have solar in your back yard that's less of an issue, but no victory garden or corn field for you! I hope that makes sense.

To the storage problem: I think you're underestimating the losses incurred when it comes down to using those various forms of energy storage. I have some comments in this recent thread that somewhat address the numbers with regards to pumped storage via compressed air on an industrial scale. But it's the same thing, everytime energy changes form you have losses. A quick review of the numbers there seems to indicate that a CAES solution requires 3+ MJ input for a 1 MJ output. So basically take any solar solution you've sized and, if you want it to get you through the night, scale it up from the size you had(which I hope you've already adjusted up for cloudcover/rainy days) by a factor of... 4? That sound right? To cover the demand through the night? That's off the cuff and I may not be considering something.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:36 AM on July 11, 2012


OnceUponTheTime: the other hand, if there isn't enough silicon in the world...

Silicon is really abundant, so there is no risk from running out of the base material for solar panels.

RolandOfEld: It's that when the rubber meets the road with regards to the politics/economics/engineering side of things it really becomes "It's complicated".

Sure, it's more complicated than you might naively expect, but on the other hand doing nothing or waiting for the solution to magically appear one day is not really an option, either. When Germany started the feed-in tarriffs, the current level of renewable energy in the mix was considered to be technically impossible due to grid stability issues, etc. But when forced to cope with a larger and larger installed base, solutions were found, such as better forecasting to match production with demand. In the end, a lot of these questions come down not necesarily to inherent technological limits but to the economics and the way the systems are setup. As the installed base of solar increased, predictably economies of scale kicked in such that now for more and more regions solar energy is at grid parity or below. Why do we accept that nuclear or coal plants are really inflexible and can not react to changes in demand and the resulting necessity of peak load plants is not incorporated into their cost, but the volatility of solar and wind is fully counted against them?

There will probably not be a breakthrough in storage technology out of the blue, but now with a reasonably large installed base of renewables, there is a real economic incentive to do research, hopefully interesting solutions become feasible and economical. One promising idea researched in Germany is to convert excess electricity from wind into hydrogen, which can be mixed (up to 5%) into the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, allowing an efficient use of the existing peak load natural gas plants. A next step would be conversion of hydrogen and CO2 from fossil fuel plants to obtain methane, which could again be mixed into the natural gas pipelines, in effect halving the CO2 emissions of the fossil fuel plant. Another idea is to provide residential homes with dual-use natural gas water heaters with an integrated turbine capable of producing peak load electricity when economically feasible.

This is a gradual process, where things that are not economically viable today become possible tomorrow. A system of fairly capturing the external costs of the different technologies would certainly help to provide fair competition. For example, for nuclear, fair insurance costs are ignored. Essentially, there is no private insurer that is capable of insuring againts the economic costs of a large scale nuclear disaster, so the insurance requirement is capped and the excess is covered by the state. Accounting for a true cost of the insurance, nuclear would be much more expensive.
posted by ltl at 8:42 AM on July 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


*I should say that scaling up that much doesn't account for lowered demand at night, nor would it be necessary if you had an adequate grid solution in place. That makes the factor of 4 high, but maybe you see what I'm getting at with regards to the losses. Once I saw those numbers it really struck me how much the *peak* demand is the driver for our power infrastructure here in the US (and I suppose elsewhere).

Just think, some company is operating a plant whereby they do nothing but buy 3X energy at price A/time-of-day A and sell back X energy at price B/time-of-day B and profit. Not to mention operating costs/maintenance of their equipment. A bit surreal, to me anyway.

On preview:

ltl: Yep, we're on pretty similar pages I think. I'd love to see solar subsidies a la Germany here in the states. I'd be a first adopter. As of now I'd be happier to see people putting more insulation into their attics or installing programmable thermostats. Or subsidies for those things, whatever.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:46 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's too bad people associate living underground with low social class and poorness/desperation/bachelorhood.

Also mold, seepage, ventilation, and drainage problems.

Waterproofing is basically impossible over the long term. The best you can do is water resistant. And when the water inevitably does seep in, it can often be very difficult to repair without major excavation work. In very very dry climates underground dwellings may be an option, but it's not practical in most locations.

Also there's that whole absence of natural light thing.
posted by ook at 8:47 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


To speak to the whole underground thing, there's a compromise I saw in the form of a tire-rammed earth house built partway into a hill. I love me some earthships. I've been in one of this sort in northwest Alabama of all places and it seemed really nice. I really should have asked the owners more about the ongoing maintenance they faced. Thing is since they built it themselves and there's a lack of code support for that kind of thing in their area I recall them mentioning that they're basically shit out of luck if they wanted to sell it to someone as a residence, even though I'd love to live there. I'm pretty sure the only way they were allowed to build it at all is because they're outside of any city jurisdiction.

The owners said they had intended to go without AC at all and did for a while but the humidity here caused them to have mold problems with their plaster so they installed one to basically act as a dehumidifier. They said heat wasn't really a problem and had a wood burning stove for a few days in winter when the bay windows didn't pick up enough radiant solar. Dream house all the way.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:53 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


emjaybee:
" A national initiative with subsidies and tax breaks to get homeowners (like my landlord) to do this would be extremely effective in reducing energy use, but also would result in anguished cries of nanny-stating."
There is actually a program being offered through our local natural gas company where you can get a cheap ($20-50 based on income) energy assessment of your home followed by tax breaks and low interest loans to follow the suggestions in the assessment. I don't know where you live, but if you have Columbia Gas then ask about this program.

Sadly, I live in a 103 year old home with no wall insulation. The auditor recommended blowing in insulation which he said would be fine, but anyone else that wasn't trying to sell blown-in insulation says that it wreaks havoc on old lathe-board homes. The only solution is to rip out the walls, insulate and re-plaster and they weren't about to subsidize that.
posted by charred husk at 9:03 AM on July 11, 2012


Anything else is going to be have to be multifaceted and extremely complex, as I tried to convey in my previous comment.

ROE: Didn't mean to misrepresent your position, just to offer a general response to some often circulated talking points, so my apologies...

The main sticking point for me though, is with a single typical solar panel installation, we see a return in actual immediate reduction in carbon-fuel based energy consumption within a time span of a year or less, given the current state of the tech. With any current nuclear solution, we have to pay off years of short-term increased fossil fuel consumption and upfront cost before we even break even and see a net reduction in nonrenewable consumption on a per-watt basis.
In 2011, Benjamin K. Sovacool said that (warning PDF): "When the full nuclear fuel cycle is considered - not only reactors but also uranium mines and mills, enrichment facilities, spent fuel repositories, and decommissioning sites - nuclear power proves to be one of the costliest sources of energy"
If we want immediate reductions in nonrenewable use, nuclear can't give us that.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:47 AM on July 11, 2012


High temperature superconductors could save our collective ass.
posted by Foosnark at 10:04 AM on July 11, 2012


No worries, I wasn't really offended, just didn't want to be put in one box or the other necessarily.

I'm just of the mindset that the only 'solution' that really offers us win-win-win, and this is addressed a bit in the OP's article, is a reduction in usage. As much as I look around, even in this thread which I consider to be full of forward thinkers of a more intelligent type than the general populace, it seems that everyone focuses on power generation and the supply side of the issue. I'm not naive enough to discard that altogether but it just seems like there's an inherent unwillingness or blindspot or something when it comes to curbing usage or trying to address things on the demand thing.

Maybe it's an economics or an American thing that boils down to our need to drive the economic mega-machine and consume, consume, consume but it hurts to see people, even myself, slip into habits like the overuse of plastic, single use water bottles or being so adapted to an energy/AC dependent lifestyle that the thought of driving 2 blocks instead of walking is absurd and the concept of not using the AC while doing so is equally unthinkable.

Those habits will be coming to a stop soon, if only due to the loss of cheap inputs/energy, the system will throttle itself back at some point, have no doubt. I just hope it's not too late for us, neighboring counties/continents, or the generations that follow to enjoy some semblance of the wonderful things we have surrounding us today.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:04 AM on July 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


I still don't understand why I've had to wear long-sleeved sweaters to every office job I've ever worked when it's 90 degrees outside. Why do big corporations need it to be so cold? Wouldn't they save thousands of dollars if they bumped up the temperature a few degrees?

In defense, this is what some of my coworkers are always saying, while I sit here (in my mandated tie) sweating, with an extra fan running. People can add more clothes, I can't take things off. Well, not without getting fired.
posted by inigo2 at 10:04 AM on July 11, 2012


this positive feedback loop turns out to be non-trivial.

I assume the feedback loop itself is not very important.

The big thing is that a lot of people in hot and formerly very poor countries are now not-so-poor and increasingly able to afford AC, along with a whole bunch of other stuff.

This example is a special case of the general principle, that the planet can't sustain everyone on it living the current US lifestyle. At least not without radical changes to the way we do most everything, and possibly not at all. Another example is that as Asians get richer, they eat more meat, which puts pressure on water and other resources.
posted by philipy at 10:06 AM on July 11, 2012


Video clips out today about NOAA making a connection between recent extreme weather and climate change:

*ABC News (.flv)
*MSNBC
*Al Jazeera (w/ Michael Mann)
posted by stbalbach at 10:45 AM on July 11, 2012


One cool solution: underground dwellings. Seriously energy efficient to keep cool/warm, depending on the season.

It's really a shame we don't do that more in new housing developments.


No need to dig, although the initial cost may be higher: the Passive House standard^ [mefi] provides a massive reduction in energy usage by eliminating thermal bridging and other ways that heat "leaks" back and forth in structures depending on season. A related, but not identical, concept is the net zero energy home.

These are existing standards, they are designed around current home architectural approaches, and fit well -- even unnoticeably -- into existing developments. There's an initial investment bar to cross, but after that energy costs are much lower.

I'll repeat what my physics prof told me thirty years ago: The largest source of new energy in the world is (going to be) conservation.
posted by dhartung at 11:07 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


In defense, this is what some of my coworkers are always saying, while I sit here (in my mandated tie) sweating, with an extra fan running. People can add more clothes, I can't take things off. Well, not without getting fired.
posted by inigo2 at 1:04 PM on July 11 [+] [!]


Before air conditioning, they made summer suits for men which were much lighter than what men now wear in the summer. And in hotter climates, people work/worked early in the morning and later in the evening, taking the hottest part of the day to rest. We're losing our coping mechanisms.

Of course, it doesn't help that in North America we live in houses and wear clothes (like the wool men's suit with jacket) that evolve from designs developed in Europe (a cooler climate) during the Little Ice Age (a cooler time in that cooler climate). In England in c1650, wearing a linen shirt with a wool waistcoat and jacket on top would have been very comfortable for 90% of the year - and it was too cool for much of the year to wear less.

However, Arizona in 2012 or even Toronto in 2012 is not England in 1650 or 1850, and maybe we should let our clothes reflect this. Women already have some more freedom to wear shorter skirts, lighter blouses, but men should be allowed to dress appropriately to the weather as well. When I see men in traditional middle eastern or Indian clothes, they look perfectly neat, formal and comfortable in the heat.
posted by jb at 11:14 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Energy storage is ... the major stumbling block to full deployment of solar.

In the context of air conditioning it makes the most sense. No storage needed. It's hot because the sun is shining. Solar makes energy when the sun shines ... when people are driving, working.

At night, the wind machines take over. With holes filled by gas generators.

So the main problem isn't so much storage (as simple as pumping water uphill, storing it in millions of electric car batteries, etc.) ... it's a grid smart enough to somehow level off a multitude of sources (and effortlessly ship power between regions) to provide smooth, continuous supply. We can do that.
posted by Twang at 11:14 AM on July 11, 2012


also, if offices are going to require that men wear full suits, they really should expect women to as well -- or possibly floor length dresses with petticoats, etc.

Otherwise you end up with this craze situation where the men broil and the women freeze.

(I'm much more in favour of letting men wear lighter clothing - there is no need for a long sleeve shirt, no matter how formal the office).
posted by jb at 11:16 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


No need to dig, although the initial cost may be higher: the Passive House standard^ [mefi] provides a massive reduction in energy usage by eliminating thermal bridging and other ways that heat "leaks" back and forth in structures depending on season.

Passive building is good, but passive building with good landscaping is even better. This article from the EPA is focused on cooling, but shrubs and trees also reduce heating costs, especially around drafty older homes. Essentially tactical planting reduces drafts around homes. Trees not only have a direct effect on immediately adjacent buildings, but a cumulative effect on heat islands. Plus all the stuff we already know about making oxygen and using CO2, sequestering carbon, reducing pollution from urban runoff, &c.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:23 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


trees!
posted by eustatic at 11:44 AM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Several office blocks in downtown Toronto (in addition to the Air Canada Center sports arena and the convention center) now use Enwave Corp's Deep lake water cooling system for their air conditioning needs. Icy cold (4°C) water drawn from the bottom of Lake Ontario is used to cool down the closed loop district cooling system installed downtown before proceeding into the city's potable water system. This completely renewable cooling source uses 75% less electricity than traditional AC systems, providing an estimated 207MW of cooling power.

This approach is only viable in locations with a nearby large body of water over 200 feet deep, unfortunately.
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:49 AM on July 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


omg, oneirodynia...if i could favorite that a thousand times i would.
Plant a big tree on the south side of your house (or north side in the southern hemisphere) and open doors and windows on the east and west, and you will NEVER need air conditioning again. In the summer it blocks the heat and in the winter (when the leaves fall off) it lets it in.
posted by sexyrobot at 12:08 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Icy cold (4°C) water drawn from the bottom of Lake Ontario

What are the unintended consequences of the transfer of heat into the lake? Obviously small scale not much but could envision too many buildings to cool. Every little bit helps. Could be scalable in the ocean.
posted by stbalbach at 1:06 PM on July 11, 2012


What are the unintended consequences of the transfer of heat into the lake?

They avoid those consequences by not releasing heat back into the lake at all; the water is warmed up on it's way into the city drinking water system (which works just as well with luke warm water input as with icy cold water input), and the water eventually finds it's way back to the lake via the usual water cycle. (Although, even if they did, it's roughly a 2.5 million gallon system [~9500 cubic meters] versus a 393 cubic mile lake; well within the lake's ability to cool that volume back down again each winter if it had to.)

Previous discussion when the system was launched in 2004 (the Enwave site seems to be mid redesign or something).
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:30 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


RE clothing and comfort, I've noticed something out here in Arizona over the past 30 years or so that shows dramatic shifts toward more casual, cooler clothing in business environments.

30 years ago, you could find men wearing short-sleeved button-down shirts, but they were often accompanied by a tie (even if it was a bola-tie). However, as the linked article notes, they are diminishing in use and guys don't seem to be replacing them with standard ties, unless they're in high-formality business situations. The trend seems to be toward a nice, button-down, collared shirt, left open at the neck with no tie.

In the college system where I teach, 40 years ago, professors were generally expected to wear ties. Nowadays, it's generally the rule to see faculty in shirts with no tie. This shift started long before I came here and is in part the result of a more casual culture, but also a reflection of the thermal realities of teaching in Phoenix.

Nowadays, I can only think of a couple of instructors that regularly even wear tailed shirts. Indeed, the tailless, untucked shirt (designed to be left untucked, with a finished bottom hem like the bowling shirt or guayabera style) seems to be catching on as acceptable wear for professors teaching classes.

I heartily approve of this trend. Less formal and cooler, too, while still maintaining a neat, professional look. I like the sharp dressed look of a suit and tie, but there's no need to do it every day in your office, unless looking dressed to the nines is critical to your business. In most cases, it's not.

/clothing tangent
posted by darkstar at 2:29 PM on July 11, 2012


Yeah, AC is basically an appliance whose sole function is to create a local reversal of the laws of thermodynamics. It's a pretty serious and significant piece of reality engineering we take for granted, and defying basic physical laws--even if only on a small scale--takes a lot of energy to pull off.

Actually, AC is remarkably efficient. A modern Energy Star air conditioner transfers more than four times as much heat energy out of a building as the electrical energy needed to run it. Which brings us to the next issue:

It's worth pointing out that while AC may require a lot of electricity, it still requires less energy overall than heating the same temperature difference using most common domestic heating technologies.

You are neglecting the fact that the AC runs on electricity which typically, for a coal power plus distribution losses, only about 25% of the energy actually gets to the AC from the power plant. Since the efficiency of the AC as a heat pump is about a factor of four, the efficiency of the AC and the losses in the power plant roughly cancel out. This means that, overall, AC cooling has roughly the same efficiency as a gas furnace for heating.
posted by JackFlash at 5:19 PM on July 11, 2012


a massive expansion in renewable sources of energy, as welcome as they will be, just will not cut it.

What I don't understand and never have understood is why, among the very same people ready to make all kinds of demand-side predictions on the basis that deployment of mass-produced residential power sinks like air conditioners is inexorably rising, there is such a complete failure of imagination on the supply side.

Solar PV is an almost perfect match for air conditioning: it generates peak output exactly when the structures requiring cooling are experiencing maximum solar radiation; it generates the power right where it's needed, eliminating the need to upsize distribution infrastructure; it's mass-produced, and its cost continues to decrease as technologies improve and demand rises. Hell, the panels can even shade your house and reduce the amount of cooling it needs in the first place.

I'm extra baffled by wilful expressing that view, given that I know he has grid-interactive solar PV and is currently paying nothing for electricity as a result.
posted by flabdablet at 10:12 PM on July 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Solar PV is an almost perfect match for air conditioning

Up-thread odinsdream mentioned he had spent $28k on a home PV system and that "the $28k solar system I linked to above at peak operating efficiency and maximum output could maybe barely run the AC compressor for our 1200 square foot home, with nothing left for any other electrical device." It turns out AC is very energy demanding and PV is very costly.
posted by stbalbach at 11:13 PM on July 11, 2012


It turns out AC is very energy demanding and PV is very costly.

This is a technologically ridiculous statement. Just slapping PV on a typical, thoughtlessly sited and poorly built ranch house with a standard AC system on it is going to fail, and anyone with half a brain knows that. It does not mean that solar doesn't work, nor does it refute the statement that solar and AC are "a perfect match". They can be a perfect match if the house is designed properly (using the highly exotic technology of insulation, and sited with properly placed exotic biotech called trees), because the peak power output of the PV is happening right when the peak solar load is happening.

Just think of cars: you have to lighten the cars and change the drivetrains for efficiency improvements. Power sources and loads have to be changed at the same time.

That PV is "costly" is a question of not having the right financial instruments in place. Hardly anyone cold buy a house until the 30 year mortgage was developed, for example. Right now, individuals must pay for solar energy with up-front capital costs (operating costs are nil). All other energy sources require huge up-front capital costs as well, but we have instruments in place for the large institutions and corporations to use in making centralized systems (what a surprise--our society gives special favors to the powerful and well connected). As soon as similar instruments would be available for individuals to use, PV would abound.
posted by mondo dentro at 6:33 PM on July 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


a massive expansion in renewable sources of energy, as welcome as they will be, just will not cut it.

And another thing:

At some point we are going to need to meet global energy demand with 100% renewable supply, because inherent in the very notion of non-renewability is the fact that every non-renewable fuel will eventually be depleted to the point where it can't sustain a positive EROEI.

Global energy demand is rising. So if we don't bite the bullet now and push as hard and fast as possible in the direction of cutting over to renewables now, we will have to do so at some future time where we need more renewable supply more urgently to avoid large-scale social and commercial disruption.

It's never going to be easier to start the transition to a fully renewable energy supply system than it is right now. Therefore, right now is when it makes the most sense to orient public policy toward doing that. Every new energy supply dollar not invested in end-use efficiency or renewable energy supply, it seems to me, represents many more dollars needed to do so later.
posted by flabdablet at 2:14 AM on July 13, 2012


The sun will, eventually, be depleted too.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:16 AM on July 13, 2012


As I've remarked before, I'm not convinced that worrying about things that won't happen for 25,000 times as long as humanity has even existed is worthwhile. We will be long extinct before the Sun goes phoof.
posted by flabdablet at 4:39 AM on July 13, 2012


Don't be such a pessimist!

Anyway, the point is non-renewable sources can last for long enough amounts of time that their non-renewability may not be an ironclad reason to phase them out in favor of alternatives right now. At some point we have to get to 100% more-renewable, for now we should be more concerned with C02 impact than renewability. If we had a magic power source that could power the world safely for 50 years but then go away, it would be a godsend.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:21 AM on July 13, 2012


mondo dentro, I hope you aren't taking my real-world example as some kind of railing against solar power. I love the system. I'd be glad to cover any specifics you're interested in about our specific house, but the point I was making about AC energy usage doesn't involve our specific house, its insulation, tree location, or any of that.

There is a baseline minimum amount of energy which the AC system consumes. That amount is higher than the peak energy produced by the solar system. Our particular AC system is under 2 years old, and was the most efficient compressor system available at the time.

It only gets worse if you consider various factors that would increase your total AC runtime, such as poor insulation, poor air circulation, overheating from lack of tree cover, etc.,

I agree that there is an extremely poor system of incentives to invest in renewable energy. In fact, it's only through pure luck and circumstance that we were able to take advantage of the full tax credits for this project, and that's additionally because I feel personally committed to renewable energy. It is an extreme privilege to be able to make such an investment choice without adverse effects, which conversely means very few people are likely to do it.

I think the points made above about simpler solutions are overlooked far too often. The way we design and build new homes is absolutely ridiculous. Simple choices like which way the home faces will result in enormous long-term energy consumption. Somehow getting these very low-cost decisions to be made with an eye towards reducing energy consumption is an obvious first step that is, as far as I'm aware, completely ignored from a public policy perspective.
posted by odinsdream at 5:53 AM on July 13, 2012


Fastest and cheapest way by far to reduce CO2 emissions would be to tax organizations that do fossil fuel extraction per ton of elemental carbon extracted, at a rate that rises monotonically and predictably so that businesses could easily plan investment decisions around it.

Fossil fuel imports would also be taxed at the same rate. Fossil fuel exports would attract a tax rebate equal to the fossil fuel import tax rate applicable in the destination country. The rebate would be capped at the domestic import/extraction rate, the net effect being that extracting fossil fuel for export costs exactly as much per tonne of elemental carbon as it would have done to extract it in the more expensive of the two countries involved.

Because natural gas contains a far greater proportion of hydrogen than do liquid or solid fossil fuels, it causes far less CO2 emission per megajoule than does coal or oil. And because the tax would be on elemental carbon, gas (although still a fossil fuel) would be taxed less heavily per megajoule than coal or oil, giving it a market advantage and causing it to displace coal and oil accordingly.

As the tax rate rose it would drive the uptake of energy efficiency technologies, because it would become increasingly clear that saving fuel costs less than burning it. It would also make both renewables and nuclear power relatively more attractive, though because nukes have such long ROI lead times I'm tipping that renewables would win far more investment (as they have already been doing for at least thirty years).

The effect of the tax on the economy would be to cause the price of almost everything to go up to some extent; goods and services with higher embedded energy costs would go up more, giving a competitive advantage to organizations that invest in reducing those costs.

The proceeds of the tax should just be divvied up and handed out in the form of direct payments to citizens. This would act as a stimulus to economic growth, an offset against the general price rises caused by the tax, and a counter to the free market's present tendency to concentrate wealth to an unhealthy degree.

This scheme would be both legislatively and administratively far simpler than any kind of cap-and-trade mechanism. However, as the Australian experience with a roughly similar though somewhat more complicated scheme is currently showing, it would most likely be strongly resisted by millions of chickens with a bizarre ideological tendency to support Colonel Sanders.
posted by flabdablet at 6:16 AM on July 13, 2012


There is a baseline minimum amount of energy which the AC system consumes. That amount is higher than the peak energy produced by the solar system.

Then the solar system is undersized, as most of them will be for as long as solar PV continues to cost significantly more per kW than coal-fired generators. But the price of solar PV is actually coming down pretty quickly as China ramps up production of panels; once it starts getting serious about manufacturing photovoltaics designed for direct integration into roofing materials I expect it will come down even more quickly.
posted by flabdablet at 6:27 AM on July 13, 2012


In Ontario, yesterday's minimum load was around 16MW, with maximum hitting 26MW.

But the prices vary much more than a ~40% swing.

Yesterday at 5am, a MW/h cost $18.
Yesterday at 4pm, it cost $56.

That's a ~300% difference in price. There's a huge, huge, huge market opportunity there to both store power temporarily (which we don't know how to do efficiently), and to generate it at peak hours (which we do know how to do): solar.

Solar makes a tremendous amount of sense for peak generation, even if it is 3x as expensive as nuclear, which it is not.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:57 AM on July 13, 2012


Numbers in my previous comment from the IESO.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:00 AM on July 13, 2012


You are neglecting the fact that the AC runs on electricity which typically, for a coal power plus distribution losses, only about 25% of the energy actually gets to the AC from the power plant. Since the efficiency of the AC as a heat pump is about a factor of four, the efficiency of the AC and the losses in the power plant roughly cancel out. This means that, overall, AC cooling has roughly the same efficiency as a gas furnace for heating.

Yes, that's true, but that's close to a worst-case scenario. In many heavily-populated areas of the country, things are not quite as grim as that. For instance, someone running an air conditioner in NYC is probably getting their power from one of ConEd's plants, many of which use a combined cycle and have a thermal efficiency of around 50+%. Transmission losses are not that bad because of the local generating capacity, so the result is almost certainly over 1EER. Especially in large buildings which can have HVAC systems even better than Energy Star rated home ACs.

(Also, there are "transmission" losses in natural gas supplies as well, due to 'technical gas' drawn off to run pumps, occasional leakage, etc. So the fossil-fuel heat is probably slightly below 1EER when you include that.)

Interestingly, ConEd would really like you to power your air conditioning system with steam, and provides some interesting incentives for large customers to do so. The transmission losses of steam are fairly high, but it's cheap to produce (it's the "bottoming cycle" basically produced with waste heat at the end of a gas power plant), and even cheaper in the summer when there's no heating demand.

* ConEd claims (there's a ConEd slide deck buried about halfway into the NYC Climate Change one) that their overall generation efficiency is 33%, transmission 98.8%, distribution 96.5%, with the bulk of the losses due to older power plants. A push to eliminate or retrofit old single-cycle plants (regardless of the fuel source) with combined cycle and cogeneration systems would be a tremendous energy savings and seems like an obvious place for government intervention, if the utilities are not suitably motivated by market forces to do it themselves.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:15 AM on July 13, 2012


Then the solar system is undersized,...

This is my entire point. I'm really not making some argument here. I'm just providing a real-world scenario to demonstrate that powering AC with solar is not a simple matter of putting a solar panel on top of your compressor.

Our system takes up over half of our roof.
posted by odinsdream at 8:28 AM on July 13, 2012


...the rest of the roof is solar water heating.
posted by odinsdream at 8:28 AM on July 13, 2012


...and just so it's totally clear... we did not install solar with the goal of powering our AC, so again I'm not claiming solar is some kind of failure here, with any of my comments. I think it's an excellent technology and needs to be deployed as much as possible.
posted by odinsdream at 8:31 AM on July 13, 2012


Dammit. Need to point out I mistyped MW instead of GW in my comment about Ontario energy usage. Clumsy of me. It's not like a dozen MW solar plants are going to do the trick. We need lots of solar, on rooftops and in parking lots everywhere.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:49 AM on July 13, 2012


I mean honestly, why aren't all the BURNING HOT parking lots everywhere not populated with a bunch of these guys -- which are sprouting up on farms all over SW Ontario -- on 30 foot poles? It would shade the cars and produce an assload of power in a space that is right now basically wasted. I don't understand.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:56 AM on July 13, 2012


There's a huge, huge, huge market opportunity there to both store power temporarily (which we don't know how to do efficiently)

Actually, we do. All that's needed is high capacity batteries, such as you might find lying around underemployed at every Better Place Charge Spot.

Isentropic has an interesting approach as well.
posted by flabdablet at 10:21 AM on July 13, 2012


Sorry, that should have been Switch Station rather than Charge Spot.
posted by flabdablet at 10:25 AM on July 13, 2012


In the US at least, the approach is large-scale. Wouldn't solar work really well on the small scale? Panels on flat-topped roofs powering A/C, heat, hot water, and feeding leftover electricity in to the grid when it's sunny. Large-scale solar installations are too far away. But there are a lot of roofs in cities, on barns, etc.

And on houses. People still don't buy houses based on operating cost. Houses are built to be marketed, and you can't see the R value of walls and roofs, and solar hasn't gotten standardized enough to be easy. Builders don't site houses for solar access. Surely there are some successful solar sub-developments that set an example of sustainability? Surely there are buyers who are willing to pay more up front for lower operating costs, and banks who will lend to them.

I don't have A/C at home, but am pretty comfortable with fans and windows. It's a little hot today, but iced tea helps. Just got a (used, hybrid) car with A/C; nice on real hot days, not a requirement in Maine. I like having the windows open. Too much A/C at work. I have to go outside to warm up after 4 hours of sedentary office work in icy air some days, and I have to wear warm clothing. In the winter, it's too warm, and I end up taking off my sweater or getting sleepy. And I'm not in great shape. When I was in better shape, my comfort zone was even wider. People are becoming accustomed to a narrower range of acceptable temperatures. Offices have windows that don't open; how soon will houses be that way? I've seen people come in fro a walk, and crank up the A/C instead of waiting 15 minutes to cool off. Or bump the heat up instead of wearing a sweater.

It seems to me that solar installations are proprietary; that you can only add equipment from the same vendor, who may or may not still be in business. Why are the other reason small-scale & residential solar taken off?
posted by theora55 at 5:56 PM on July 14, 2012


Well, right now one problem is that photovoltaic technology is improving so quickly, you're really trying to grab a falling blade if you buy today versus tomorrow or six months from now or next year.

The efficiency improvements have been so big that it's actually better to wait, save the money, and purchase a more-efficient panel next year than one this year -- the watts-per-dollar efficiency improvement is worth more than the electricity that this year's panel would produce in 12 months, or so I've been told.

I've thought a bunch about PV panels on the side of my house that gets sun, but have held off for exactly this reason. It's like purchasing computer equipment in the 90s. If you can avoid buying now and wait six months, you'll get something that's a whole lot better for a lower price. There's no first-mover advantage here, on the consumer side.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:25 AM on July 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


« Older We're not here for your inspiration...  |  The 7 best behind-the-scenes S... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments