Beating the heat

We just finished a week or so of 90+ temperatures with high humidity in Boston without air conditioning.  We survived quite well.  It wasn’t until day 6 or 7 that I really began to suffer – that the was day there was no afternoon sea breeze.  Exhaust fans on each floor pull air through the house and smaller fans are placed in the rooms we use the most.  We are lucky to have good four-way ventilation.  Cool showers and cooking in the mornings = or not at all – also help.  (We went out once to out favorite pub so find that their air conditioning was not 100%, but it was just fine.)  I am one of those rare people that don’t like living in refrigerated air.  So I was very interested in the Boston Globe article in the Sunday Ideas Section titled “How to Live Without Air Conditioning”  In it, Leon Neyfakh  points out the life style changes that we could make so that we at least reduce our energy consumption.

Since the technology was invented in 1902, and the first window unit was brought to market in 1939, air conditioners have become ubiquitous in the United States. Today, almost 90 percent of American households have one—as do the vast majority of restaurants, stores, museums, and office buildings. During weeks like the one we’ve just had, these places are sanctuaries: To walk into one after being outside is to be reminded how sweet life can be.

But all that magic chilling comes at a cost—something most people are aware of on a personal level, because their electricity bills are so high during the summer, but not so much on a global scale, which is really where the problem lies. In China and India, air conditioning sales have reportedly been growing by 20 percent per year; around the world, air conditioning energy demand is projected to increase vastly over the next decades. According to Stan Cox, author of the 2010 book “Losing Our Cool,” air conditioning in the United States already has a global-warming impact equivalent to every US household driving an extra 10,000 miles per year.

English: Series of air conditioners at UNC-CH.

English: Series of air conditioners at UNC-CH. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think about that.  And we continue to build office buildings taller and more dependent on artificial cooling.  Yes, maybe some are energy efficient and green building, but they still consume vast amounts of energy.

When experts look at A/C use in America, they immediately see a spot of illogic: We use vast amounts of energy just to let businesspeople do something they’d probably rather not do anyway. “We are probably overcooling our office buildings by 4 to 6 [degrees] F just so that office workers, particularly the males, can wear their business suits,” wrote Richard de Dear, who is head of architectural design science at the University of Sydney and a researcher on thermal comfort. “The current clothing behaviour is costing us a fortune in energy and greenhouse emissions!”

In Japan every summer, in an environmental initiative called “Cool Biz” that started in 2005, government officials encourage building managers to let temperatures climb to 82 degrees and advise employees to loosen their sartorial standards. In 2011, the government even put on a fashion show, with models catwalking in untucked polos, capri pants, and Kariyushis, a Japanese take on the Hawaiian shirt.

Here in America, it probably wouldn’t require such a hard sell. Many female workers already dress for summer weather, and would likely be delighted not to have to huddle in sweaters against the A/C. Among men, polos are already considered appropriate on casual Fridays, and it’s not hard to imagine that most would happily embrace a breezier style for the rest of the week. Instead of long pants, they could don formal shorts—a concept that has long been embraced in Bermuda, where executives can be seen attending meetings with exposed knees.

And people can do similar things at home.

Even a mid-sized building could save considerable amounts every year by operating at shorts temperature. But if modifying what we put on our bodies could help us give up extreme climate control, rethinking buildings themselves—and how we ventilate them—would go even further. Already, some of us live in homes that can be effectively cooled by opening windows in the basement and on the top floor every morning, thus taking advantage of the so-called stack effect to pull cool air up through the house and allow hot air to vent into the street. People can also try “evaporative cooling,” a modest, low-tech form of air conditioning, by hanging wet towels in the window or setting them in front of a basic electric fan.

Some of  Neyfakh’s life style suggestions like changing to a work schedule with early morning hours, a mid afternoon siesta, and late work hours are a tougher sell:  Too many people commute long distances.  But people who telecommute could try raising the temperature at home a few degrees so that they at least don’t have fried brains and the inertia that comes with it.  Also try adjusting blinds to follow the sun and plant trees.

There are some parts of life, it must be said, for which air conditioning is not just a luxury but a necessity. The Internet depends on servers that require climate control in order to not go up in flames. Modern skyscrapers depend on it, as well. If we gave up air conditioning, New England would largely be fine, at least for now, but entire swaths of the country would become uninhabitable: Summers in the Sun Belt cities and in parts of the South would be so harsh that millions of people would simply move away. We also would be unwilling to take away A/C from those most sensitive to extreme heat—namely, the sick, the very young, and the elderly.

That doesn’t mean that trying to reduce our society’s addiction to A/C is a fool’s errand. The fact is, our bodies are built to adjust to heat—it’s just that we haven’t had to lately, because we’ve become so accustomed to refrigerating ourselves when the weather gets hot. A study in which researchers surveyed 21,000 people, spread out across 160 buildings on four continents, found that “people in warmer climates were more comfortable in warmer indoor temperatures than their counterparts in cooler climate zones,” according to Richard de Dear, one of the coauthors.

The findings indicate that people actually prefer being in places where the temperature fluctuates, as long as they have some control over it. “If you have the ability to open or close a window, turn a fan on or off, change the blinds, modify your clothing—it just becomes a natural part of your day-to-day living, and you don’t build these expectations that conditions should be the same all day and all year round, which I would call ‘thermal monotony,’” said Gail Brager, an architecture professor at UC Berkeley who also worked on the study. “We not only accept—we actually prefer—a wider range of conditions that float with the natural rhythms of the outdoor climate.”

No doubt this is hard to believe, as you sit there in your air-conditioned home, happily soaking up the artificial breeze emanating from the murmuring machine in your window. But is there not something fearful about refrigerating ourselves with such vigilance? We’re not cartons of milk, after all; we will not spoil, even if we do sweat a little. In fact, by taking full advantage of the technology inside our own bodies—technology that makes it possible for us to adapt to a whole spectrum of temperatures—we might discover we’ve been missing out on a way of life that actually feels quite natural.

Everyone doesn’t have to go air conditionless as we do, but there is nothing wrong, and much to gain by not making all of our buildings so cold.  Maybe we can at least agree on a temperature like 80 or, like the Japanese, 82 and save some energy.

Energy, Keystone and climate change

Now that everyone in the world is striving to own a car, a television, at least one computer, air conditioners, electric lighting and other energy using devices we need to develop more, cheaper and better sources of energy.  President Obama says we need to move away from carbon based fuel sources but still may approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.

I used to be opposed to the pipeline because of the environmental damage caused by the actual building through the midwest, through farms and endangered dunes and prairies.

Oil swirls in the Yellowstone river after an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured near Billings, Montana.

Oil swirls in the Yellowstone river after an Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured near Billings, Montana.

And then came the various ruptures of the existing pipeline in the Yellowstone River in 2011 and recently in an Arkansas neighborhood.  The New York Times reported

On Tuesday [April 2], vacuum trucks and crews were still working to clean up the accident, which the Environmental Protection Agency called a “major spill.” While it was unclear how much oil had leaked, Exxon Mobil said it had recovered thousands of gallons of oil mixed with water and had prepared for a spill as large as 420,000 gallons, though it said it believed that the amount released was smaller.

“Our focus is on the safety of the people in the community and restoring the environment as soon as we possibly can,” said Alan Jeffers, an Exxon Mobil spokesman. “We’re committed to the cleanup and will stay until it’s done.”

The spill appears to be the largest accident involving heavy crude since an Enbridge Energy pipeline spill in 2010 that dumped more than 840,000 gallons near Marshall, Mich., soiling a 39-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River.

Somehow I can’t imagine what the interiors of the homes smell like.  The odor of the oil can permeate everything including furniture, rugs and bedding.

In addition to pipeline safety, I am learning more about the process of extracting the oil from the sand in Alberta.  Extraction of the oil releases CO2, uses water and by some estimates uses more energy to extract the oil than the oil produces.  So if our ultimate objective is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce green house emissions, extracting oil from the tar sands does not seem to be the answer.  The Scientific American has a long and interesting article on the subject.

TAR SANDS: At least 170 billion barrels of oil could be extracted from Alberta's oil sands deposits with today's technology. Image: © David Biello

TAR SANDS: At least 170 billion barrels of oil could be extracted from Alberta’s oil sands deposits with today’s technology. Image: © David Biello

If I understand the article, carbon is emitted twice:  once during the extraction and then, a will all oil, during the refining process which turns the oil into gas or heating oil.

The greenhouse gas emissions of mining and upgrading tar sands is roughly 79 kilograms per barrel of oil presently, whereas melting out the bitumen in place requires burning a lot of natural gas—boosting emissions to more than 116 kilograms per barrel, according to oil industry consultants IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. All told, producing and processing tar sands oil results in roughly 14 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil used in the U.S. And greenhouse gas emissions per barrel have stopped improving and started increasing slightly, thanks to increasing development of greenhouse gas–intensive melting-in-place projects. “Emissions have doubled since 1990 and will double again by 2020,” says Jennifer Grant, director of oil sands research at environmental group Pembina Institute in Canada.

In the U.S. State Department’s review of the potential environmental impacts of the Keystone project, consultants EnSys Energy suggested that building the pipeline would not have “any significant impact” on greenhouse gas emissions, largely because Canada’s tar sands would likely be developed anyway. But the Keystone pipeline represents the ability to carry away an additional 830,000 barrels per day—and the Albertan tar sands are already bumping up against constraints in the ability to move their product. That has led some to begin shipping the oil by train, truck and barge—further increasing the greenhouse gas emissions—and there is a proposal to build a new rail line, capable of carrying five million barrels of oil per year from Fort McMurray to Alaska’s Valdez oil terminal.

Then there’s the carbon hidden in the bitumen itself. Either near oil sands mines in the mini-refineries known as upgraders or farther south after the bitumen has reached Midwestern or Gulf Coast refineries, its long, tarry hydrocarbon chains are cracked into the shorter, lighter hydrocarbons used as gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. The residue of this process is a nearly pure black carbon known as petroleum (pet) coke that, if it builds up, has to be blasted loose, as if mining for coal in industrial equipment. The coke is, in fact, a kind of coal and is often burned in the dirtiest fossil fuel’s stead. Canadian tar sands upgraders produce roughly 10 million metric tons of the stuff annually, whereas U.S. refineries pump out more than 61 million metric tons per year.

Scientific American continues

In other words, tar sands are just a part of the fossil-fuel addiction—but still an important part. Projects either approved or under construction would expand tar sands production to over five million barrels per day by 2030. “Any expansion of an energy system that relies on the atmosphere to be its waste dump is bad news, whereas expansion of safe, affordable and environmentally acceptable energy technologies is good news,” Carnegie’s Caldeira says.

There’s a lot of bad news these days then, from fracking shale for gas and oil in the U.S. to new coal mines in China. Oxford’s Allen calculates that the world needs to begin reducing emissions by roughly 2.5 percent per year, starting now, in order to hit the trillion metric ton target by 2050. Instead emissions hit a new record this past year, increasing 3 percent to 34.7 billion metric tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

If we are serious about climate change and serious about carbon emissions, we will not build the pipeline.  We can’t do much about what is going on in Canada, but we can not build terminals in Washington State and Alaska and stop pumping tar sands crude though existing pipelines.  It will be argued that gas at the pump is too expensive.  That is costs too much to heat one’s home in the winter and run air conditioning in the summer, but price is not determined solely by availability in the United States.  Energy is now a worldwide demand.  I hope President Obama does the right thing.

Photograph of the Yellowstone Larry Mayer/AP