The air-conditioning debate

With the record-breaking heat, power outages (both here and abroad), there has been a new debate about the necessity and long-term viability of air-conditioning.  While the United States is, more or less, an air-conditioned land (more than 4 out of 5 homes have it), many developing countries are not.  There is a reasonable expectation that, as they develop, air-conditioning will be one of the many modern conveniences that they choose to adopt.

And who can blame the rest of the developing world (much of which is in the tropics) for wanting to be comfortable?  As with many climate and energy debates, though, the reality is that if everyone consumed like we do in the US, our energy supplies would be taxed and our global carbon footprint would balloon.  So it seems as though we’d be worse off if the rest of the planet followed in our footsteps.

The other side of the story, though, is that much of our successes in the US are owed in part to air-conditioning.  It improves productivity and has allowed our economy to prosper, getting us to a point where we have the technological capacity to make things like solar panels and wind turbines.  Heck, air-conditioning was invented to improve the function of printing press by controlling humidity.  For all its negative consequences, air-conditioning has also had many positive impacts on society.

So, the question becomes this: do we want to be hotter in our houses in a cooler climate, or cooler in a warmer climate? There’s no easy answer.  The march up the energy ladder (more on this in a later post) gets dirtier before it gets cleaner, meaning we’re in store for potentially rising emissions from emerging economies.


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was the hottest month on record for the contiguous United States. Ever.  Here in Virginia, well, this pictue says it all:

It was just that hot.  And dry.  With all this crazy weather, we’re starting to see some great analogies for how climate change affects weather.  First, there are the “loaded dice.”  Basically:

“It´s like a game with loaded dice,” says [Dim] Coumou. “A six can appear every now and then, and you never know when it happens. But now it appears much more often, because we have changed the dice.”

A heat wave or a drought like we saw this summer becomes the six.  We can most likely expect to see more of them in a warming climate.

And then there’s the basketball analogy (because this is America, and we love sports analogies):

“The video — which points to a 118 degrees F day in June in Norton Dam, Kansas — uses a basketball metaphor to illustrate how a warmer atmosphere has “raised the floor …. all plays are starting from a higher level.” Making for more slam dunks and illustrating how “the stats have begun to change.””

The video is worth watching if you have as spare eight minutes.

And one more graph, just for fun:

That’s 2012 in red, in a league of its own right now.

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Speaking of Hickory Hall

Construction is under way.  Check out the video below to see how a modular residence hall is put together (Thanks to Jimmy Whited of E&H for the video and link).


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Windows of opportunity

The modular units for Hickory Hall have begun arriving at Emory & Henry.  They look pretty nondescript right now.  They’re just modular building blocks sitting on trailers.  The above picture is the foundation for Hickory, and if you look far off into the distance you can see the trailers lined up in front of the baseball field.

 One thing you might notice in the picture below is the little sticker that says “Made in Ireland” in the bottom right corner of one of the panes.Why did we order windows from Ireland?  Well, it turns out that to get a Passive House Certified window, you have to go across the pond.  As you can imagine, these aren’t your average windows.  They are triple glazed, filled with argon gas, and have a low-e coating.  What does all that mean? Excellent insulation characteristics, of course, to meet  rigorous Passive House standards.

Take a look at the window cross section below.  This is from a double glazed, high-performance window:

Now, look at the cross section of this triple glazed Passive House style window:

Notice a difference? The first window isn’t a bad window at all.  In fact, it’s not even a standard builder’s grade window.  It’s still got a low-e coating and inert gas.  But the second window, well, it’s just plain impressive.  It’s got an extra pane of glass in there, with an extra layer of inert gas for insulation.  In addition, it’s fully thermally broken, meaning that the window and the frame won’t transfer much thermal energy from the outside or inside (called thermal bridging).

The result is astonishing.  Preliminary modeling suggest that just changing the windows lowered our heating load by 20-25%.  How is this possible? Well, a good double glazed window will have a u-value of about .3 (equal to an R-value of about 3.3).  A triple pane window will be about half that, or .15 (equal to an R-value of about 6.6).  So, it’s only twice as a efficient, right?  Not quite.  Take a look at this chart of u-value to performance:

Notice that it’s a nonlinear relationship going from a u-value of 1 to .5 gains a little, going from .3 to .15 gains a lot.  It’s the same for walls.  If you look at the chart again, you’ll see that you gain a lot more by going from u-value of .2 to .1 than from .3 to .2.  These windows are also tilt-and-turn instead of double-hung, which means a much better seal and far less air leakage.

So that’s the story of our fancy Irish windows.  Hopefully next time you look at a building, you’ll have a new appreciation for the windows and the role they play in a building’s energy performance.

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This is what an oil boom looks like from space

Want to take a wild guess which state recently surpassed Alaska to become the second leading oil producer in the US?  Why, North Dakota, of course.  The recently developed Bakken shale deposit has been producing a lot of oil.  It’s resulted in boom towns and jobs (North Dakota’s unemployment rate is about 3%, the US as a whole is just above 8%).  It’s made a lot of folks rich.  But it’s also resulted in a lot of natural gas flaring.

And that’s what those little red dots are (this is what it looks like at ground level).  Natural gas is a byproduct of the drilling, but because of low prices, low demand, and a lack of infrastructure, it’s being flared at such a high rate that the US has jumped from 14th to 5th in amount of flared gas per year.  It’s terribly wasteful, and represents more than $100 million in lost revenues.  There are proposals to build additional pipelines or a fertilizer plant, but those are still a long way from construction.

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It’s getting hot in here

Well, NOAA just confirmed that last 6  months were the hottest on record.  How hot was it? This hot:

Over 170 all-time warm temperature records were broken or tied in June.  The past 12 months just edged out the previous 12 as the hottest on record as well.  And there were plenty of extreme weather events too:

Oh yeah, it’s pretty dry too:

Additionally, the National Climatic Data Center puts the odds of this warm weather not being related to climate change at 1 to 1.6 million, or approximately the same chances as a snowball in…well anywhere except the Pacific Northwest the US last month.  Again, this isn’t directly linked to climate change, but all of these extreme weather events are highly correlated with a warming planet.

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It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility

The recent extreme weather events have gotten me thinking about climate change, which I don’t frequently discuss here. Climate scientists are saying that what we’ve been experiencing is a preview of what the future might hold for our weather patterns. Note that the wildfires and heat waves aren’t being directly linked to climate change, because climate and weather are two separate concepts.  This is merely a preview of possible future weather events that will become more common as the planet warms.

If you’re not up to speed on the topic of climate change, I’d recommend going here  first.  If you’re not in a reading mood, then start with this video, which is a pretty good overview of most of the pertinent issues.  The facts are pretty consistent, though.  Anthropogenic climate change is real, and we will see the consequences in the coming decades.

This great article has reminded me that skirting the issue only serves to prolong a debate that has been scientifically settled for some time.  A recent study backs this up, reporting that in the past few years the concern about climate change has waned.  And of course, the venerable James Hansen has a similar opinion.

Now that you’re thoroughly informed (and maybe a little sad),  and because I haven’t posted a single polar bear-related video since starting this blog, here is a terribly sad one about melting polar ice (with a little Radiohead and Jude Law on the side).

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