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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?

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.

People who oppose wind turbines are lame

I'm a big fan of wind power. No, it's not a magical solution to all energy problems. Wind turbines are a worthwhile component of a cleaner, more efficient energy grid.

As large-scale wind turbines become more popular, cost is going down and efficiency is going up. As far as I can tell, the main argument against the big windmills is that they despoil the landscape. It turns out they don't really kill that many birds.

After seeing a few in action in Mackinaw, Michigan and on a trip to New York, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. They're actually pretty graceful – the new ones are so large that they don't need to spin like a propeller to generate a lot of power.

In any event, if the biggest problem is a matter of personal aesthetics, wind has a leg up on, for example, burning coal. So to those opposing the turbines, I have to say the argument against is pretty lame.

I've toyed with the idea of installing solar panels on my roof, but at my latitude, it's hard to justify. But what about installing a personal wind turbine? Rather than a familiar windmill-style turbine, a vertical axis wind turbine might just do the trick.

It looks like it's possible to build a small one, but I'm not sure how well the design (or my skill) would scale. I did run across a company called Mag-Wind that produces a really cool looking rooftop mounted vertical turbine . In addition to the advantages of vertical turbines, they claim that situating it on the ridge of a pitched roof offers additional benefits.

I'm not really sure I can buy one, though. The only dealer I can find is on Ontario, Canada. Maybe I'll drop them an email. I would be a little less skeptical if their site has photos of a working installation.

There are a lot of companies out there selling personal, home-sized or farm-sized wind turbines. I guess I'll have to do some more looking, and then a bunch of angry math to see if it's affordable—I'm not as worried about making a profit in the long term as I am being able to afford such a cool tech toy in the first place.

Of course, we could always cover the world's deserts with solar panels.

Save the world, one light bulb at a time

Are you one of those people who cares about things like energy efficiency and global warming, but you don't go around hugging trees? If so, you're in a tough spot – other than opting for a reasonably-sized car, there are very few things you can do to personally make an impact.

Add compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs to the list of ways you can make the world a better place. Fast Company recently had a great article about how if every household in the United States replaced just one regular bulb with a CF bulb, we'd save enough power to run a city of 1.5 million people. Slashdot followed with some great commentary.

There are two really big problems that make it hard to be an environmentalist right now:

  • Associating yourself with knee-jerk, pseudo-scientific “environmentalistsâ€? who believe in healing crystals and other claptrap, and
  • Finding things you can actually do that don't do more harm than good or require a huge, expensive sacrifice.

This is the real deal. I've been using CF bulbs since I got my own place a few years ago. They plug right in like regular light bulbs, most of the time you can't tell the difference, and the prices have gone down too. They're available at all the major retailers, and your power company has probably been recommending them in that literature they send along in your bill. But surprisingly few people seem to be using them.

Some pamphlets and web sites recommend simply replacing regular bulbs with CF bulbs as they burn out, but really you're better off grabbing a bunch tomorrow and switching them out with any regular bulbs that you use often. You can keep the old bulbs around as spares – these things will make a dent in your electricity bill immediately, so why wait? Retailers often have sales where you can pick up a 4-pack for less than $2 per bulb.

Most bulbs will give you a lifetime savings estimate right on the box, and in my experience they are pretty accurate. As a geek who stays up late with a lot of computers running, my electricity bill rarely hits $50 a month, even in the summer.

There a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Cheap, off brand CF lights are often crappy. Sometimes you'll run across people who have sworn off CF bulbs because they bought one that buzzed, flickered, or died quickly. There's a very good chance they bought a cheapy random off-brand CF bulb. To be safe, the big three (Philips, GE and Sylvania) are pretty reliable. I haven't had the best experience with Lights of America bulbs, but that's just anecdotal evidence.
  2. If you have a dimmer switch, you need a special CF bulb for dimmers.
  3. Watch out for lamps and fixtures that are a tight fit – you may need to buy an extension to get the CF bulb to fit, or just continue to use the old bulb for that particular lamp. Also, lamps that completely enclose the CF bulb may shorten it's life.
  4. If you have a room where color is very important, you might want to stick with conventional incandescent bulbs. Any new bulbs you buy now from a reputable manufacturer will make use of three colored phosphors to generate while light, somewhat like a television screen. The new ones are actually pretty good at rendering color most of the time – if you have seen fluorescent lighting that looked orange or pink, stark white, or made people's skin look like corpseflesh, chances are you're seen an old or cheap off-brand bulb that used just one phosphor.
On that last point, you really only have to worry if color rendering is extremely important. The bathroom might be a good place to keep conventional bulbs. In addition, an art studio or a room used as a gallery are probably exceptions. The best thing, really, is to just try it out.

Interested in learning more? In the near future I'll write a little more about how CF bulbs render color and which ones are the best.

Also, in the coming weeks and months I'll point out other ways to save money and save the earth (or at least the parts of it we want to drink and breath, the mantel and molten core are in no real danger).

Got any tips? Write about you experience with CF light bulbs below.