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Deep Lake Water Cooling: Saving the Earth, one Skyscraper at a Time

In the past we've talked about some things that you can do to make your house more energy efficient. Some things are easy, like putting in Compact Florescent light bulbs, while others are on their way in the near future, like your own personal wind turbine. There's only so much you can do at home, though, and many of us live in large, air-conditioned office buildings. How could a glass-covered skyscraper possibly use less power for cooling in the summer? If you live in Toronto, it's easy - just tie into the Deep Lake Water Cooling System. Deep lake water cooling system in Toronto The system, by Enwave, draws water from Lake Ontario, deep below the surface where it's always a chilly 4 degrees Celsius. The water runs through huge heat exchangers before making its way into the city's normal water supply. A separate cooling loop transports water chilled by the incoming lake water to various buildings in the financial district where it is used in the air conditioning system. Here's a diagram of the system at work. The city is seeing substantial benefits since it tied into the cooling system:
Metro Hall went online with Enwave's Deep Lake Water Cooling system in June 2006. With the addition of this building, energy consumption will be reduced by 1.7 million kilowatt-hours per year and reduce CO2 emissions by 1,915 tonnes annually - equivalent to taking 383 cars off the road.
According to Enwave, the system uses 90% less energy than a traditional air conditioning system and is price-competitive. This is one of those cases where you don't even have to pay a premium to reduce CO2 production. Here's a picture of the gigantic heat exchangers: Deep water cooling heat exchanger Other large Great Lakes cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo could take advantage of a system like this as well. Add in a few off-shore wind farms and the Rust Belt could take a real lead in green technology that makes use of the local geography. So what do you say, Cleveland?

How Can a Hummer Be Better for the Environment than a Prius?

Earlier one of our writers stumbled on a report that claimed gas-guzzling Hummers were better for the environment than hybrids like the Toyota Prius. This is one of those great stories that everyone loves - where the conventional wisdom is wrong, and we can all have a good laugh knocking someone or something off it's high horse. This story has been passed furiously around the Internet for a week or so, by email and blog, featured on Digg and Slashdot. It's a good anecdote about unintended consequences and a little boost to Hummer owners who are sometimes criticized for their very conspicuous consumption. It's also pretty much a load of crap. But how can that be? The writer did a bunch of research, and came up with numbers and formulas. Lots of people saw it and voted with a thumbs-up in Reddit or StumbleUpon. Welcome, dear readers, to the world of white papers and press releases. Let's say you had a conclusion you wanted to support, or clients you wanted to flatter. You do a bunch of research, finding information that backs your conclusions. Now what to do with it? You can try presenting it at a conference or submitting it to an academic journal, but then you run a risk. The risk is that peer review will knock it down. The scientific method has a key difference from the method mentioned above - instead of creating a conclusion then finding evidence, you create a hypothesis, gather all the evidence, then form your conclusion. Take this pesky detail and add a dash of scrutiny by experts in the field and you have a pretty good recipe for coming up with useful theories and knowledge. The recipe just won't make the muffins come out exactly the way you want them every time. So what do you do with this research? Put it in a white paper and/or type up and good press release. The term "white paper" used to refer to government policy documents, but now it's often used to mean a report by a company or individual in an industry intended to inform and persuade customers and partners. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, so long as everyone knows that the purpose of the document is often to persuade or sell something, not to impartially report on all the facts. IT workers have become very familiar with the uses of white papers since we are constantly bombarded with them. They are notoriously available to prove nearly any point you want to make. Is Oracle the fastest database system? You can probably find 20 white papers that say so authoritatively and conclusively. Is Oracle bloated and inefficient? Look, there's 20 papers that say so authoritatively and conclusively. They aren't all worthless, because each one might give you some good factual information. It's up to you to find and use what you need without drinking the Kool-Aide. The use of email by lots of people outside the IT realm and recently the hug number of non-IT bloggers has given press releases and white papers some new possibilities. They can be spread around the world in record time and quoted by a 1,000 blog posts as if they were primary sources. Notice that this report on the Prius and Hummer is 450+ pages. How many people, do you think, read all 450 pages? There are a number of problems with this report that make the conclusion that Hummers are green and Priuses are baby- seal-clubbing smog machines hard to swallow. For one thing, it assumes that a Prius will only last 109,000 miles, which is lower than some parts of the warranty in California and similar states, while extending the life of a Hummer H1 to 379,000 miles. Plenty of Priuses have already passed 200,000 miles, often working in taxi fleets. It also mentions the use of Nickel in the batteries and the damage Nickel mining did to Sudbury, Ontario. The batteries are warrantied to 100,000 miles Nickel is recyclable. Sudbury has done a great deal to mitigate past environmental damage and is no longer a wasteland. As the TrueDelta blog points out, the cost of ownership numbers are amazingly high for all the vehicles in the report. If Priuses cost this much to build and operate, we have to assume that Toyota is taking a huge loss on every one sold, and in fact the entire auto industry is grievously undercharging us. There are a number of other problems with the report, but others have already done a pretty good job outlining them. Probably the biggest problem is that the source data is not available for review, since it is considered valuable intellectual property by CNW research. So what's the answer to the question posed in the title? How can a Hummer be better for the environment than a Prius? By using whatever methodology you want, using whatever data you want, and closing your research up from peer review, that's how. And what's the lesson for today? It's certainly not "don't believe everything that you read," because that is glib and cynical without being precise enough to be useful. Here are some thoughts that might be a bit more practical:
  • White papers and press releases are fine, but keep in mind they are often intended persuade you or sell you something.
  • Starting with a conclusion makes research easier, but doesn't validate your conclusion.
  • Digg, email forwards, and 1,000 blogs do not count as peer review.

Insulate Your House with Packing Peanuts?

I'm always on the lookout for ways to make my house more energy-efficient. I'm also always buying things online and having them shipped to my house. This leads to a problem - a bevy of boxes, and a plethora of packing peanuts. Boxes can be broken down, folded up, and recycled. What to do about the packing peanuts? Could I kill two birds with one stone, and use them as fill to insulate my attic? The answer is probably not. I trolled around the web looking for someone esle with the same crazy idea and came up relatively short handed. One point I picked up pretty quickly is that they are not really Styrofoam packing peanuts, the are Polystyrene foam. Styrofoam is a trademark that refers to a specific product, and were talking about the wild multicolored mass of packing material I have at my disposal. One blogger confessed he has always had an urge to eat them. I'm not sure how that helps me, but there it is. In an article saying they can be broken down into biodegradable materials, one of the people commenting on his post wondered the same thing I did, but there were no answers. At Ask a Scientist, a web site of the U.S. Department of Energy, a kindred spirit asked about the R-value of packing peanuts and styrofoam, and here I got my most definitive answer:
As a professional civil engineer, I recommend against using packing foam for building purposes in the strongest possible way. This is a DANGEROUS idea. Foam panels sold for insulating buildings are treated with flame retardants while it is likely that foam peanuts are not. Untreated Polystyrene foam is dangerously flammable and produces highly toxic fumes.
So there you have it. I still say "probably not," because the main problem is flammability and it's possible there's an inexpensive flame retardant that could be used. But just dumping them into cheap garbage bags and laying them in the rafters looks like a bad idea. Still, it's not like using polystyrene is unheard of in the building industry. For example, I have found instructions for using peanuts in green roof construction, usually bagged into batts or pillows. Thermasave building panels are made of polystyrene foam sandwiched between two (presumably flame-retardant) concrete boards. At least one interior designer (so, not quite a civil engineer) recommends using the peanuts to insulate basement windows. Many do-it-yourselfers recycle them into projects such as solar water heaters. Of course, those biodegradable packing peanuts made from corn starch are fairly common these days. If I ever have to buy any peanuts, I'll definitely get those, and still save the world on packing peanut at a time. But right now I still have a ton of non-degradable peanuts to deal with. There's a company in England turning them into pencils, rulers, and other school supplies, but they are too far away. I've only found a few other reuse ideas. So my best bets are to keep them around in case I have to do a lot of shipping (though now I'm worried about the fire hazard), or take them to a shipping company like Mailboxes, Etc (now the UPS Store) so that other people can reuse them. I'm not likely to be sending a lot of materials that require packing peanuts for shipping any time soon, so I guess I'll go with the latter. Maybe I'll help someone avoid getting fired.

Environmentally Friendly Cars, Hummer O2

I am sure that most people out there don't really care if their car puts out a lot of carbon dioxide or whatever other bad gasses and liquids that leak from their choice mode of transit. I am sure, though, that most people care if they are getting really good gas mileage. Or if they don't care about the mileage, yes I am talking to you Hummer and other SUV owners out there (and don't tell me it's for car pooling! I never seen more than two people in a SUV ever), they do care about saving money. Which buying gas less often can do for you. Recently I have seen what GM has been experimenting with in the saving the world with better designed cars venture. I know that it will not acutally become a real car but the concept is really interesting. It's refreshing to see that car companies still know how to be creative, and it touches my tree-hugging hippie heart that they still care about the environment. Or, at least they noticed the sales of hybrid cars and decided they needed something fresh and innovative. Let's think about what could be cooler than a hybrid car. Something eyecatching and easy to remember. Something special. Something kinda rediculous and not manly at all. So, what am I talking about, you wonder? None other than the Hummer O2. Pretty clever, eh? Here's a picture:hummero2.png This is a car that is run by algae. And other stuff like hydrogen fuel cells. But look at the aglae. All that aglae is going to turn your louting and polluting CO2 into O2, perfectly breathable by animals and stuff. Probably people, too. The whole car is supposed to act as a leaf, with the algae consuming the byproducts of the motor (the carbon dioxide) and turning it into oxygen, just like a leaf would do in nature. This car would be doing it all the time, even when the car was not running. GM is incoperating a lot of different little car tricks into this vehicle as well showing that they have studied the industry: the hybrid breaking mehcanism for reclaiming energy in the tires, hydrogen fuel cell for the power source, the ugliness of a Hummer, ect. So, it's ugly and probably not going to be voted 2008s cutest car. But, it's the idea that counts. I mean, it's smart to use a reuseable resourse for our fuel, right? Right. I know, I hear the outraged cries of all of the enslaved algae but I think there will be benefits for them as well. I just don't know what yet. I mean, they would be getting all of the sunlight any chlorophyll owning specimen could ever ask for. It's an all you can eat sunlight buffet. Of sun-shiny goodness. Unless you live in Ohio. Then it's a lot of cloudy days. So, live in Florida and this is the ugly little car for you. And I hope you like green because there aren't going to be a lot of customized colors on this one. Maybe blueish (blue green algae) or reddish brown (red tide or dinoflagellates) if they can figure it out. On the website there is also a pretty colored schematic of how exactly they think this car will work. The man driving the car is sitting directly inside the hydrogen fuel cell as far as I can tell. And it looks like he has a tree growing out of his head, possibly a result from sitting inside the hydrogen fuel cell. hummero221.png But look at all the sunlight. I told you it would be a buffet.