Sunday, March 11, 2007

Weird Energy

A friend teaches an activism class at a local private school. Her students want to take concrete steps to curb climate change. She knows I'm fired up about this (and have an engineering degree) so she asked me to work with the class to figure out what needs to be done and how to persuade the administration.

We started with the building where the class meets and found that the heating system (which circulates hot water from the boiler to radiators) was over-heating the upstairs rooms (people had propped windows open on a cold snowy winter day) while the basement was very chilly. I talked to maintenance people and got permission (and instructions) to adjust the radiator valves. We found that every one of the valves was wide open. People told us that the building had always been hot upstairs and cold down since it was built in 1959. (Hot water is less dense than cold, so the top rooms were getting most of the hot water and very little was going downstairs.) Bet the system had been operated that way for 48 years!

The students and I spent the afternoon adjusting the radiators valves and I was feeling pretty good when we'd finished. Stopped at the maintenance bldg to return some tools. Sean Hannity was blasting from the radio, ripping into Al Gore for his hypocracy (huge energy-hogging house, jetting hither and yon...) Hannity was also asserting that the carbon offsets Al is touting are a sham designed to enrich Al. Shocked to find myself agreeing with Hannity until that last one. Since no one was in the maintenance building, I turned the radio and the lights off in the name of energy conservation... Yikes.

So why hadn't the building maintenance staff ever bothered to balance the heating system? Well, maybe because they don't pay the gas bill. I'm recommending that the school pay the maintenance staff a percentage of the reduction in energy bills they achieve next year. The school spent over $500,000 for gas and electricity last year. If maintenance can cut the bill by 20% that's 100,000! So pay 'em 5% of what they save-- that's $5,000. I think their staff is about 5 people. Will $1000 bonus motivate them? I bet it will! They knew how to balance the heating system-- they just didn't have much incentive to bother.

So when NASA-Goddard's lead climate scientist, James Hansen says we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% to avoid pushing Earth's climate past a catastrophic tipping point, I now believe it's possible. We waste so much energy.

We all need incentives to fight climate change. A gradually-increasing carbon tax would shift expectations and start us down a much better path. It's a simple concept-- tax fossil fuels. But don't take the money out of the economy-- pay a share to each person. Those who use more than average fossil fuel would pay more in higher prices than they got back. Those who beat the average would reap rewards. Check out the slide show on