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Part 2: Wind and waste heat

This is part two of a four part series:

  1. Part 1: The Little Things
  2. Part 2: Wind and waste heat
  3. Part 3: Petroleum, plastic, and data centers
  4. Part 4: How it will shake out and conclusion

PDF of the whole thing (2,158 words).

Being green makes good business sense, much of the time. While you obviously wouldn’t want a hospital run directly on solar power, it does make sense to build solar arrays in the right places, and wind farms in perpetually windy areas, and then hook these up to the existing power grid. In that context, running the hospital on solar power doesn’t seem like such a bad idea anymore. In medicine, we manage chronic pain by coupling a long-acting opioid with a short-acting, rapid-onset opioid. The long-acting agent is used to control baseline pain, and you never use short-acting opioids to manage baseline pain because of the greater duel risks of overdose and dependence. These agents are used to breakthrough needs only. In power generation, the metaphor is analogous: renewable resources provide your baseline power, and your coal- and oil-based electricity kicks in only when necessary. Thankfully, exothermic reactions lend themselves to relatively rapid cycling and are therefore suited to “as-needed” use.

Texas billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is seeing why it’s valuable to invest in renewable sources of energy. Not only is it good for national security, but it makes good business sense to invest in renewables. With any non-infinite resource, the market is subject to the forces of supply and demand. When supply drops, the price goes up. If demand increases because India and China need their share of the world’s petroleum supplies, prices for the US consumer go up, as well as the ancillary costs associated with anything that needs to be transported. As the amount of available petroleum decreases — as it’s steadily and inevitably doing — these forces increasingly affect the way you operate your business. For a company like National Grid, eliminating the twin problems of scarcity and competitive bidding are good for the bottom line.

Civil and structural engineers and architects are hopping on the green bandwagon as well. The first of them jumped on because it was hip and different, and enabled them to leverage a different kind of brand image to achieve financial success. Lately, though, buildings that are built to be more energy efficient make economic sense. In Sweden, Jernhusen AB is harnessing the body heat of thousands of commuters that pass through Stockholm’s main railway station. The firm believes that the system being designed can provide about 15% of the energy needed to heat the 13-story building being built next to Central Station. This system isn’t even particularly radical. It’s going to cost about $47,000, and will only require a few pumps and some pipes, since the ventilation system is already in place. I think it’s a safe bet that a 15% annual energy savings for a 13-story building will more than cover even the short-term costs associated with it, particularly in a city only ~1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle like Stockholm.

Since every mechanical system wastes energy in the form of heat, recycling waste heat is also becoming more popular. Estimates of the amount of energy lost in the form of heat — expressed in terms of electricity — from smokestacks in the US alone is at 50,000 megawatts, more than half of what this country generates from its aging nuclear fleet. Initiatives to turn this waste heat directly into electricity are already underway, and can be built on small scales that make it worthwhile for these industrial companies to invest in.