Dear EarthTalk: Has an alternative to air conditioning to keep rooms cool been invented that is significantly cheaper and/or that uses significantly less energy than traditional air conditioning? -- Ashutosh Saxena, Allahabad, India
Unfortunately the modern day air conditioner, with its constantly cycling, energy-hogging compressor and environmentally unfriendly chemical coolant, still reigns supreme throughout the world -- and increasingly so in rapidly developing countries like India and China where possession of air conditioning connotes middle-class status. And while the chlorofluorocarbon coolant widely used in air conditioners through the 1980s was phased out because its emissions were causing damage to the globe's protective ozone layer, the chemicals that replaced it worldwide, and which are now in use in hundreds of millions of air conditioners, are some 2,100 times stronger as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. We may have saved the ozone layer, but -- whoops! -- there goes the climate.
Just because people aren't using them much doesn't mean there aren't some good alternatives. The best known is an evaporative cooler (AKA swamp cooler). Better for hot, dry climates, these electrified units cool outdoor air through evaporation and then blow it inside. They make for a nice alternative to traditional air conditioners, using about a quarter of the energy overall. They are also quicker and cheaper to install and can be moved around to different rooms as needed. But swamp coolers can require a lot of maintenance and may not keep the interior space as cool as some AC-hungry inhabitants might like.
Apartment/condo and commercial/industrial buildings might consider augmenting their existing roof-top air conditioning systems with the cooling power of ice. California-based Ice Energy makes and sells the Ice Bear system, essentially a large thermal storage tank that makes ice at night -- when the cost and demand for energy is lower -- and then doles out ice water into the air conditioning system during the day to efficiently deliver cooling when it's needed. Since the air conditioner's energy-intensive compressor can remain off during peak daytime hours, the electricity required for cooling can be minimal, with some customers achieving 95 percent electricity savings using the system. And utilities across the country are starting to encourage its use by large customers.
Stanford University has been utilizing its own version of similar technology since 1999 to keep its campus buildings cool. Since upgrading to an ice-based cooling system, Stanford saves some $500,000 a year on its campus cooling bill. If such technology could be adapted to augment home air conditioning systems, it could go a long way toward reducing air conditioning's environmental footprint overall.
Of course, let's not forget that a small investment in a fan or two to create a breeze or wind tunnel through inhabited interior spaces can go a long way to offset summer heat. Even better, get a professional to install a "whole-house fan," which draws in cooler air through lower level open windows and exhales hotter air through specially designed attic vents synced to open when the system is operating.
The race has been on in the air conditioning business for some time to find a coolant that doesn't destroy the ozone or add to global warming, but progress has been slow. Meanwhile, global warming itself will beget the need for more air conditioning, which will only exacerbate an already dire situation, especially as the rest of the world starts to demand artificial cooling just like we've enjoyed in the West for decades.
Contact: Ice Energy, www.ice-energy.com.
Dear EarthTalk: I was appalled by the pollution haze I saw on a recent visit to Acadia National Park in Maine, and was told by a ranger that it was from smokestacks and tailpipes hundreds of miles away. Is anything being done to clear the air in Acadia and other natural areas where people go to breathe fresh air and enjoy distant unobstructed views? -- Betty Estason, via e-mail
This pollution haze, which emanates from urban and industrial centers to the south and west, has been a problem at Acadia National Park and elsewhere (e.g. Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah and Voyageurs national parks) for decades despite a 1977 Congressional dictum calling for the nation's greatest natural treasures -- known as "Class 1" areas -- to be free of the unhealthy air plaguing cities. The haze is caused when tiny pollution particles absorb and/or scatter sunlight before it reaches the ground, reducing the clarity of what we see. According to the National Park Service (NPS), which is working with other agencies and state governments to help remedy the situation, "Some types of particles, such as sulfates, scatter more light than others, particularly during humid conditions."
Of course, the pollution in the air causing the haze is also not good for our health or the environment.
"Exposure to very small particles in the air has been linked with increased respiratory illness, decreased lung function, and even premature death," reported the NPS. Also, the most common particles, nitrates and sulfates, contribute to acid rain, which renders some water bodies unsuitable to support aquatic life.
Analysts with the Mid-Atlantic/North East Visibility Union (MANE-VU), a regional planning agency with representation from all Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states as well as two tribes and four federal agencies, calculated that 100 miles in visibility should be the norm throughout these regions but that 40 to 60 mile visibility is typical today because of pollution. They also warn that haze can reduce visibility to just a few miles at times. The fact that these problems exist in natural areas hundreds of miles from the sources of pollution is particularly troubling to environmentalists, park visitors and seekers of fresh air.
In November 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed to finalize requirements for states to create haze pollution clean-up plans -- those first called for in 1977. These plans will require the worst polluters to install "Best Available Retrofit Technology" (BART) to clean up particulate pollution.
But a recently proposed addendum would allow 28 eastern U.S. states to avoid direct compliance, since they are already required to cut emissions through the Cross State Air Pollution Rule (CSAPR). "While the emission trading program created by CSAPR will result in significant air quality benefits for many eastern states, it will not require some of the most egregious polluters of iconic Class I national landscapes to clean up their pollution to the same level that would be required under BART," reported the National Parks Conservation Association, which would like to see EPA drop its proposed BART rule exemption.
Readers can do their part by using less energy and making sure some of the power offered by their utilities comes from renewable sources. And stay away from haze-prone locales on humid days when conditions are ripest for the formation of particulate pollution and the negative health effects that can come with it.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.