Attention College students: Environmental choices are not black and white

My institution, Oberlin College, has been burning coal to heat its buildings for probably over 100 years.  The practice continues today.  The College is concerned about the pollution associated with this and has developed a plan to phase out coal and phase in natural gas.  But Oberlin College Environmental Studies students want more — they oppose this plan and insist on a much more aggressive plan to reduce carbon.  They push plans that call for heating all buildings with ground-source heat pumps, powered by green electricity.  They naively believe that using electricity produced by landfill gas will provide our green future!  (Hello!  Utilizing someone’s waste stream is a smart opportunity but it does not scale to the nation unless we grow the waste stream.)  The problem, of course, is that greening the grid will take decades (at best).  Replacing coal with natural gas will significantly reduce carbon emission NOW, buying time for more aggressive changes in the future.

Brett Stephens addresses this very thinking today in his opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal where he discusses the Keystone Pipeline in the context of the recent runaway train explosion in a small Quebec town just north of the Maine border.  He is bang on when he asks the question, “Can Environmentalists Think?”

This is exactly what pragmatic stewardship is all about.

One thought on “Attention College students: Environmental choices are not black and white

  1. Hi John,

    I agree with your assessment. Students must begin at an early age to learn that application of scientific reasoning can minimize naiveté and provide real advances in our society. Thermodynamics and Economics are basic sciences with which environmental students must become proficient. The first Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed but it can be converted from one form to another, which is the concept of enthalpy. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be transmitted from a lower potential (i.e., sink) to a higher one (i.e., source) without applying Work, which is the concept of entropy. Applying the Laws of Thermodynamics to Economics: 1) You can’t get something for nothing, and 2) You can’t get if for even what you thought you could.

    Energy consumption in buildings is required to provide for the health, safety, security, and well- being of occupants. Today’s buildings are energy intensive. They use source energy to provide for electrical power and ventilation, to provide space heating and cooling when needed, and to dissipate the heat from these conversion processes. Typically, the sink for this dissipation of heat and the associated pollutants is the air surrounding the building and the power generating plants. Alternative sinks are bodies of water (e.g., rivers, lakes, ocean) or ground. The Laws of Thermodynamics reveal through “energy and mass balances” that the temperature of the sinks and associated pollutants will increase as the sources are used.

    “Ground-Source Heat pumps” with “Green Power” are an interesting case. Although Green Power Plants may reduce carbon emissions, they do not reduce thermal emissions to the sinks. For the ground-source heat pumps to work for heat dissipation (i.e., cooling), the ground must also be a sink. The heat exchangers for this heat transfer require a high capital cost (i.e., first cost). Moreover, the long-term environmental and economic impacts (i.e., lifecycle costs) of these heat pumps are uncertain: 1) they require pumping power to operate; 2) the durability of casings in the ground is questionable; 3) the operating and maintenance costs are high; and 4) the stability and longevity of the sink temperature is uncertain.

    Hopefully, with education including the sciences of thermodynamics and economics, students will learn to be advocates of feasible and practical solutions to these real problems for the posterity of health, safety and security of building occupants as well as for outdoor environmental protection.

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