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Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths

Filed under: — raypierre @ 15 June 2008

Many of our tech-savvy friends — the kind of folks who nurse along the beowulf clusters our climate models run on — are scratching their heads over some cheeky shrieking that recently appeared in a WIRED magazine article on Rethinking What it Means to be Green . Crank up the A/C! Kill the Spotted Owl! Keep the SUV! What’s all that supposed to be about?

Let’s take air conditioning for starters. Basically WIRED took a look at the carbon footprint of New England heating vs. Arizona cooling and jumped to the conclusion that air conditioning was intrinsically more efficient than heating. To see where they were led astray let’s consider a house sitting where you need to cool it by 20 degrees to be comfortable. The heat leaks into the house at a rate that is approximately proportional to this temperature difference, and the heat leaking in needs to be removed. Now, in order to move that heat from inside to outside, energy has to be expended. Given a fixed electric power usage (in watts), a better air conditioner can remove more heat per day than a worse one, but every air conditioner needs to expend some energy to move the heat. That’s just thermodynamics.

Efficiency of air conditioners is measured by a SEER rating, which is the ratio of heat moved to the outside (in BTU/hr) to the electric power consumption (in Watts). A typical modern air conditioner has a SEER rating of 10, We can convert this into nicer units by converting BTU/hr into Watts, which means dividing the SEER rating by 3.413, which then gives us a Coefficient of Performance, in units of Watts of heat moved per Watt of electricity used. For the aforementioned efficiency, we move heat at a rate of 2.92 Watts if we expend 1 Watt of electric energy. An air conditioner is just a heat engine run in reverse: instead of making use of a temperature differential to use heat flow from hot to cold to do work, we expend mechanical work in order to move heat from a colder place to a hotter place. Thus, an efficient heat engine is an inefficient air conditioner. That’s basically why the Coefficient of Performance gets smaller when the temperature difference between indoors and outdoors is greater — with bigger temperature difference heat engine cycles tend to get more efficient, which means that air conditioner cycles tend to get less efficient. That’s also where the “S” in SEER comes from. It stands for “Seasonal,” and reflects the fact that efficiency must be averaged over the range of actual temperature differentials experienced in a “typical” climate. Your mileage may vary.

This situation can be contrasted with heating. If that same house were in an environment that were too cold instead of too warm, so that it had to be kept 20 degrees warmer than the environment, then the amount of heat leaking out of the house each day would be about the same as the amount leaking into the house in the previous case. That heat loss needs to be replaced by burning fuel. Now, generating heat is the only thing that can be done with 100% efficiency. Old furnaces lose a lot of heat up the chimney, but modern sealed-combustion burners– the kind that can use PVC pipes instead of a chimney — lose virtually nothing. With a heat exchanger between the air intake and the exhaust, they could closely approach the ideal. But still, in this case we are generating heat rather than just moving it, so it takes 1 watt of heat power from fuel burning to make up 1 watt of heat loss. That would seem to make heating a factor of 2.92 less efficient than air conditioning.

But wait, the story doesn’t stop there. First, there’s the fact that air conditioning almost invariably runs off of electricity, and the increased electricity demand is a big source of the pressure to build more coal-fired power plants. A house can be heated by burning natural gas, and right there air conditioning becomes 1.8 times worse than heating, because natural gas emits only 55% of the carbon of coal, per unit of heat energy produced. And it gets even worse: Coal fired power plants are only 30% efficient at converting heat into electricity, on average, so there you get another factor of 3.3 in carbon emissions per unit of energy transferred between the house and its environment. Finally, figure in a typical electric line transmission loss of 7% and you get another factor 1.075. Put it all together with the energy efficiency of the air conditioner itself and air conditioning comes in at a whopping 2.19 times less efficient than heating. for a given amount of temperature difference between house and environment. That means that so far as carbon emissions go, heating a house to 70 degrees when the outside temperature is 40 degrees is like cooling the same house to 70 degrees when the outside temperature is 83.7 degrees.

And that’s still not the end of the story. A house in need of air conditioning has other heat inputs besides the heat leaking in from outside, and all that extra heat needs to be gotten rid of as well. For example, heat is a waste-product of all energy use going on in the house. Four people produce 400W that needs to be gotten rid of, and then there’s the heat from hot water, lighting, the TV, cooking and what have you — all the energy usage within the house, plus 100W of biological heat per person needs to be gotten rid of. On top of that, you’ve got direct radiative heating from the sun, both from the sunllight getting through windows and solar heating of the exterior surfaces of the house, some of which will leak in through the insulation. Energy must be expended to remove all this heat. In contrast, in the heating season waste heat is subtracted from the energy needed for home heating.

So, WIRED got the story egregiously wrong, and not just because they did the arithmetic wrong. In their rush to be cute, they didn’t even make a half-baked attempt to do the arithmetic. But what if they had been right and air conditioning really were intrinsically more efficient than heating. Would that justify their conclusion that you can just "crank up the A/C?" without worry? No, of course not, because cranking up the A/C would still use additional energy and still lead to the emission of additional carbon. For the conclusion to be justified, it wouldn’t be enough for A/C to be more efficient than heating; it would have to be so much more efficient that the incremental energy usage from cranking it up were trivial. WIRED didn’t even try to make that case. If they had, they might have spotted their errors.

Is there any real conclusion that could have been drawn from more clear thinking about the heating vs. air conditioning issues danced around in the article? Yes, in fact. The conclusion is that it makes a lot of sense to build houses in places where the environment requires neither much heating nor much cooling. This is in fact why Los Angeles scores pretty well in carbon footprint per capita, despite all the driving (as noted recently in The Economist.). Another conclusion to be drawn from the carbon footprint of New England heating is that there are probably a lot of leaky homes up there heated by inefficient oil-fired furnaces. Fixing that situation represents a huge untapped virtual energy source.

What’s more, for a magazine that purports to be written by and for tech geeks, WIRED missed the biggest and most interesting part of the story: the same intrinsic efficiences of heat pumps can be run in reverse to give you the same economies for home heating as you get for air conditioning. To do this effectively, you’d have to run the heat pump off of natural gas rather than electricity (or perhaps run it off of locally generated solar power or wind). You’d also have to deal with the fact that heat pumps become less efficient when working across large temperature gradients, but that’s where geothermal heat storage systems come in, making use of the fact that the deep subsurface temperature remains near a nice 55F all year around. Now that would have been a nice story for a tech magazine to cover. And by the way, the decrease in efficiency of heat pumps as the temperature differential increases has another implication that WIRED missed: not only does global warming increase the basic demand for air conditioning, with all the attendant pressures on electricity demand, but it exacerbates the situation by decreasing the efficiency of the entire installed base of air conditioners.

Now about that spotted owl. This refers to a claim that industrial tree plantations take up carbon faster than old growth forests; Since spotted owls require the large trees found only in old-growth, the supposed implication is that if we want to soak up carbon we ought to damn the spotted owl and cut down all the old growth. WIRED really committed serial stupidities on this one. First of all, the article they cited in support of their claim was about carbon emissions from Canada’s managed forests, not from old growth. Now, it’s true that a rapidly growing young tree takes carbon out of the atmosphere more rapidly than a mature forest which more slowly transfers carbon to long term storage in soil. However, to figure out how much net carbon sequestration you get out of that young tree once it’s chopped down, you need to figure what happens to it. Lots of trees wind up in paper, carboard boxes, shipping palettes and other things that rapidly sit around decomposing or get burned off (or worse, turn into methane in landfills). Even the part that turns into houses has a relatively short residence time before being oxidized. Anybody who has maintained an old Victorian house knows about the constant battle against rot, and the amount of wood that needs to be replaced even if (knock wood) the thing doesn’t burn down or turn into a tear-down. So, WIRED is totally off the mark there, unless, to use the colorful language of my colleague Dave Archer, they can get trees to "drop diamonds instead of leaves."

Worse, they ignore the abundant literature indicating that old growth forests can be a net sink of carbon even in equilibrium, whereas the soil disturbance of clear cutting and industrial forestry can lead to large soil carbon releases. A classic article in the genre is "Effects on carbon storage of conversion of old-growth forests to young forests" (Harmon et al. Science 1990) . They state "Simulations of carbon storage suggest that conversion of old-growth forests to young fast-growing forests will not decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in general, as has been suggested recently.". For more recent work, take a look at what Leighty et al. (ECOSYSTEMS Volume: 9 Issue: 7 Pages: 1051-1065. 2006 ) have to say about the Tongass:.

  • "The Tongass National Forest (Tongass) is the largest national forest and largest area of old-growth forest in the United States. Spatial geographic information system data for the Tongass were combined with forest inventory data to estimate and map total carbon stock in the Tongass; the result was 2.8 +/- 0.5 Pg C, or 8% of the total carbon in the forests of the conterminous USA and 0.25% of the carbon in global forest vegetation and soils. Cumulative net carbon loss from the Tongass due to management of the forest for the period 1900-95 was estimated at 6.4-17.2 Tg C. Using our spatially explicit data for carbon stock and net flux, we modeled the potential effect of five management regimes on future net carbon flux. Estimates of net carbon flux were sensitive to projections of the rate of carbon accumulation in second-growth forests and to the amount of carbon left in standing biomass after harvest. Projections of net carbon flux in the Tongass range from 0.33 Tg C annual sequestration to 2.3 Tg C annual emission for the period 1995-2095. For the period 1995-2195, net flux estimates range from 0.19 Tg C annual sequestration to 1.6 Tg C annual emission. If all timber harvesting in the Tongass were halted from 1995 to 2095, the economic value of the net carbon sequestered during the 100-year hiatus, assuming $20/Mg C, would be $4 to $7 million/y (1995 US dollars). If a prohibition on logging were extended to 2195, the annual economic value of the carbon sequestered would be largely unaffected ($3 to $6 million/y). The potential annual economic value of carbon sequestration with management maximizing carbon storage in the Tongass is comparable to revenue from annual timber sales historically authorized for the forest."

So, it looks like that old Spotted Owl and its kindred old-growth denizens are in fact sitting not just on a nest, but on a treasure trove of carbon credits worth potentially more than the timber harvest.

And should you keep that SUV? This blurb in fact contains some useful advice, buried amidst some fuzzy reasoning and published over a witless tag line stating that "pound for pound" a Prius takes more energy to manufacture than a Hummer. The apparent implication of that tag line is rebutted in the article itself, but why give the reader that as a 32-point type take-home point when the WIRED editors don’t even themselves believe it’s an important statistic? This factoid refers to the energy used in the nickel component of Prius batteries, but it’s irrelevant because "pound for pound" doesn’t count if your point is moving 4 people from point A to point B. What transport value do you get from transporting four people plus the weight of the Hummer? Now, the rest of the fuzziness in the logic is a bit more subtle. The author notes quite rightly that there is a very significant carbon emission from manufacturing a car, which is indeed more for a Prius (at least for the moment) than it is for comparable sized non-hybrids.. Thus, if you are faced with ditching your existing car (whatever it may be) and buying a Prius, you need to consider how much you drive per year and see how long it takes to "pay back" the carbon emission from manufacturing the Prius. So far so good. But this is more a statement about the transition to more efficient cars, and how to deal with mistakes of the past, rather than a statement about what is intrinsically desirable in the fleet. As far as carbon emissions go, we’d still be better off if everybody who needed a car were in a Prius, except maybe for people who drive very little per year — who should then be into shared hybrids via iGO or ZipCars, Maybe if you drive very little and live out in a rural area where there are not going to be any shared cars, getting a compact non-Hybrid might make sense. There must be at least a dozen or two people out there in that category, I guess.

The rest of the advice WIRED gives makes even less sense. They say that if you want to be green, you ought to buy a used Civic or something like that, not a Prius. That’s because the used car already has the manufacturing carbon emissions "written down" (or, I guess at least the carbon guilt accrues to the original owner, not that the atmospheric radiative forcing is going to care much about that). However, this advice, sensible-sounding though it is — ignores the fact that to make that used car available to you, the original owner almost certainly had to buy something else, and probably that was a new car, or at least a newer one. So, for the scheme to work, you’d have to buy your used Civic from somebody who was giving up driving altogether. I no longer own a car myself, but I’m sorry I wasn’t able to participate in a scheme like this; by the time I gave up our remaining car ten years ago, it was suitable only for the crusher, and in fact had to be towed there.

The real implication is that manufacturing costs count, so most people should buy a small, efficient hybrid and keep it until it runs into the ground. The implication is also that durability of cars counts for nearly as much as gas mileage, since an efficient car that needs to be replaced every five years isn’t really all that efficient.

Along with all the nonsense is a certain amount of true (if by now commonplace) advice. Among this is the basic truth that urban living is inherently green, and if more people lived in cities (and if more cities were kept livable so people would want to move there). then per capita carbon emissions would go down. Even there, the Economist managed to be both more informative and more iconoclastic with its surprising analysis of the pattern of urbanism in Los Angeles. The other truism in WIRED is that nuclear power deserves a second look, and probably has an important role to play in a decarbonized energy future. Still, if you compare the cost of making all those chilly New England homes efficient with the total true cost of building more nuclear plants, well, let’s just say I’m buying stock in argon-filled low-e window manufacturers rather than Areva, much as I like their track record on nuclear electricity.

367 Responses to “Wired Magazine’s Incoherent Truths”

  1. 1
    greg harman says:

    thanks so joining in on the wired bash. another reason to love real climate.

    at least one of my friends has declared their subscription voided over the horrendous shock-jock reporting in this series of featurettes.

    the bait-n-switch got wired onto many blogs (including mine) but not in the most favorable of lights.

    i guess since then gave’s alex steffen the ‘final word’ to cut them down a bit makes it okay(?).

  2. 2
    Brian W says:

    Someone should tell this to the Forest Service as they have just started a new climate change PR campaign which states that the best thing for the agency to do is to log and replant since new young trees will sequester more carbon. My first reaction was to ask “where is all the carbon from these old trees going to go?” There was mention of burial of trees but all I think everyone has taken out of this was it was a new reason to agressively “get the cut out…”

  3. 3
    Fernando Magyar says:

    Methinks the good folks over at Wired Magazine, like many of the people I encounter on a daily basis, when faced with the unpleasant realities confronting them, chose to deny those realities. Hey, no body wants to admit that the party might be over and nothing scares the bejeepers out of people more than the possibility that they might actually have to change the way they do things.

    [Response: Actually, the party’s just beginning. It’s just a different kind of party, but it’s one that will be no less fun. Building a whole new kind of world, seeing how you can live well and put out less carbon, well what’s cooler than that? Lots of opportunities to think outside the box, and many of them a lot of people are going to make a lot of money out of as well. Like maybe heat pumps for home heating. They exist, but the creative engineering on them has just barely begun. –raypierre]

  4. 4
    Nigel Williams says:

    Woha! Slow down! Didn’t you missed the option of using a heat pump to heat the house? Isn’t that the same as the cooling option – ie a CoP of 2.92? At least that makes better use of the source energy and thus eases emissions per degree of heating achieved, doesn’t it? Better than just a furnace?

  5. 5

    WIRED has shown its true colors; it is a vehicle for delivering advertisements to eyeballs. That article was diversionary, and when I saw it I just ignored it, but shame on them for adding to the confusion fog. And thank you for picking up the battle with them. They should thank you too.

  6. 6
    Ric Merritt says:

    Scientists and engineers who can clarify these chains of logic are a precious resource that I wouldn’t want to be without, but practically everything that is at issue between the WIRED piece and this post can be summarized for the average good-willed citizen by putting a price on carbon emissions. (And of course on other economic externalities, if they are important enough. But carbon is the biggie.) If this is done, with a minimum we hope of legislative tinkering and obfuscation, which tend to arrive in both well-meaning and ill-meaning varieties, the hitherto confused and hapless consumer needs only to look at the price tag to be sure they are close to the right decision. All the confusing bits of pseudo-wisdom pushing and pulling us are integrated nicely by the old (more or less) invisible hand. If WIRED and other over-clever commentators would push that action, which at its core is about as simple as you can get, they would be doing a real service.

  7. 7
    Tim Jones says:

    A perfect squelch for WIRED indeed. Quite amusing as well.
    Perhaps you’d enjoy doing a number on Alexander Cockburn’s
    Is Global Warming a Sin?
    F. William Engdahl’s
    Global Warming gets the Cold Freeze

  8. 8

    If you want to know which car will last longer read my book: “How to Tell Which New Car Will Last Longer.” Almost everybody does exactly one wrong thing or another, allowing the manufacturers to easily dupe you into buying the worst one instead of the best one. My book is downloadable from:

    France has 85% nuclear power and recycles spent fuel. Nuclear power both here and in France is 30% cheaper that coal without subsidy. A good book on the French system is: “Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy”, by B. Comby. The only place to order it from is:
    Wind is too variable to replace coal and nuclear. Solar only works in the daytime. Wind and solar are hundreds of times more expensive than coal or nuclear. We don’t have either the energy storage technology or room temperature superconductors that would make wind and solar work at an even higher price. This planet isn’t windy enough to get all of our energy from wind.
    Did you know that coal contains uranium, among other poisons? In fact, coal contains so much uranium and thorium that more energy goes up the stack and into the cinders of a coal fired power plant in the form of uranium and thorium than you get from burning coal. If breeding fuel is allowed, you could get hundreds of times as much energy out of the uranium and thorium in coal as you get from burning the coal. See:
    and other articles by Alex Gabbard.
    Nuclear power is the safest source of electricity, counting Chernobyl, which killed a total of 52 people. Coal smoke kills tens of thousands every year in the US and millions every year in China. There is really no way to stop AGW without replacing all coal fired power plants worldwide with nuclear. 32 countries already have nuclear reactors. Only 9 have the bomb if you include North Korea. Nuclear power plants cannot have nuclear explosions. Western built reactors cannot do what Chernobyl did.
    I have no connection with the nuclear power industry. I am not being paid to say this.

    [Response: Thanks for the information about nuclear power. What you say about coal is true. What you say about wind, solar and other renewables is facile and wrong. Also you seem to be quite confused about the proliferation implications of more widespread nuclear power. They’re not necessarily a showtopper, but they need serious though. –raypierre]

  9. 9
    Jan Lindström says:

    It seems that the test in UK between a Diesel BMW and a Prius has been “forgotten”? The test showed that under real conditions a modern diesel car consumes less fossile fuel than a hybrid. The best you can do for the environment would than probably be to buy a second hand BMW diesel rather than a new Prius. Then, of course, you´ll also have all the other superior qualities never achieved in a Japanese car. The hybrids cannot be defended, yet. They are toys to calm the conscience for a lot of money.

  10. 10
    David Ahlport says:

    On the SUV topic.

    You give them too much credence in assuming they are even partially right.

    The study they are basing their false argument on comes from CNW Marketing. And it’s completely wrong.

  11. 11
    David says:

    Not so sure about your argument regarding buying a new vs. a used car. Most cars are junked before the end of their potential useful lifespan, so buying a used car increases the average age of the vehicle fleet and thus reduces the number of new cars that need to be manufactured each year to maintain the fleet. Whether or not this actually results in a net saving in energy is not exactly clear, but it is at least plausible.
    Of course, if you really want to save energy, money and keep fit, ride a bicycle.

    [Response: When he was reading over my post, Eric Steig brought up a similar point regarding used cars. Certainly, it’s better for somebody to buy that used compact car than to have it go off to the crusher when it still has useful life in it. My point, though, is that you do little for net manufacturing carbon emissions when you decide to buy that used Accord rather than a new Prius. As long as each car stays on the road somehow until it dies, it is going to be better to be feeding in the most efficient cars at the top end, whether that be Prius or something else like an efficient diesel. The person who buys new cars at the top is just a pass through device — a means of pumping money to the car manufacturers while saving money for used-car buyers downstream. Yes, it’s better to have a pool of used-car buyers to help keep cars on the road for longer (at least the more fuel-efficient ones), but the way WIRED put it obscures the fact that the main thing is to improve the fuel efficiency of the fleet that’s on the road. –raypierre]

  12. 12
    C2thaD says:

    A couple of things, largely questions. 1.) does anybody know of a website with a “carbon calculator” that takes into account how much you drive to determine the best car for your personal carbon foot print. One that considers manufacturing processes, not just mileage. And 2.) why is it so often when we greenies start talking about new energy sources it almost always becomes an “either/or” situation. Nuclear or Wind? Hybrid or Diesel? This kind of energy monotheism is what got us in trouble in the first place. We need to expand all forms of renewable energy and place them where they are best suited. A A friend of mine read a “Time” article “the dangers of going green” or some nonsense and it said if everyone who drove drove a prius the batteries would all explode and kill all the polar bears or something equally ridiculous. That kind of monoculture thinking is what keeps us in a state of suspended animation. Variety is the spice of life and it may just save the planet.

  13. 13
    Joe Hunkins says:

    Excellent post Raypierre, and shame on Wired for what appears to be a very fuzzy / shabby analysis.

  14. 14

    Wired’s featurette entitled “Old Growth Forests Can Actually Contribute to Global Warming” claims that “during many years, Canadian forests actually give up more carbon from decomposing wood than they lock down in new growth.”

    Since this sounds like nonsense, we need only follow the link that Wired provides, where a report from Natural Resource Canada provides a graph that, as they themselves write, clearly “shows that between 1990 and 2005 Canada’s managed forest was an overall sink except during five years when it was an overall source, due mainly to emissions from extensive natural forest fires.”

    Wired got the causation wrong, the frequency of occurrence wrong, and they switched it from managed to old growth.

    Wired should apologize for being scientifically illiterate. Old growth forest ecosystems do not have the biomass productivity of younger growth, but they appear to have the highest soil biodiversity of any forests. Old growth’s high predator-insect diversity tends to reduce the chances for tree-killing pest infestation. Old-growth fires usually do not kill the biggest trees, so their carbon is not released to the atmosphere.

    It should be unnecessary here to mention here the priceless biological, aesthetic and spiritual value of genuine old growth forests, which are increasingly rare on every continent.

  15. 15
    Doug Heiken says:

    Thanks so much for correcting this WIRED mess.

    There is a pattern of timber industry misinformation on forests, carbon, and climate, for example:

    “The dynamics of forest growth under different silvicultural practices tells us that sustainably managed forest projects can sequester more carbon over time than unmanaged forests. … [A]ny unmanaged forest) will eventually stop sequestering additional net carbon as it reaches biological maturity, where sequestered carbon equals emitted carbon through decay. … Managed forests provide climate change mitigation benefits over time through the delay of wood decay CO2 emissions from harvested wood products, as compared with the decomposition or burning of wood in unmanaged forests.”
    Steven Ruddell, R. Sampson, Matt Smith, R. Giffen, James Cathcart, John Hagan, Daniel Sosland, John Godbee, John Heissenbuttel, Stephen Lovett, John Helms, William Price, and Robert Simpson. 2007. The Role for Sustainably Managed Forests in Climate Change Mitigation. Journal of Forestry • September 2007.

    And here is a link to an equally misguided Winter 2006 publication of the California Forest Products Commission with lots more BS:

    Here is a link to a slideshow I put together to try to bring a wider perspective:

  16. 16

    #8 “Wind and solar are hundreds of times more expensive than coal or nuclear” simply cannot be true, if (1) “coal smoke kills tens of thousands or millions of people,” which wind and solar are unlikely to do, and if (2) you factor-in the government’s indirect subsidy to the nuclear power industry by promising to cover, from the public purse, damages over $10 billion in a catastrophic accident. How much would total liability insurance cost in the market, if it were even available? What is the true cost of nuclear power?

  17. 17
    Chris Colose says:

    I’m far from being informed on the science of alternative energies, but the comments on wind and solar by Edward Greish stick out and deserve a red flag. Wind energy is now competitive with power from new conventional power plants, and the up-front value can be high but there are also no fuel costs; taking into account the the cost of operations and maintenance over the lifetime of the plant, etc it is actually very competitive (and of course green!). Wind farms generate electricity most of the time, but it’s true that it will generate power at full rated capacity only a very small percentage of the time. But the grid provides electricity when the wind doesn’t blow. Economics aside, when it comes to global warming impacts, pollution, mining/exraction, mercury, waste, habitat impacts, and other factors wind energy is probably the best.

    I’m certainly for nuclear power. The main issue I guess is overcoming the public conception that implementing nuclear power= explosions and three mile islands all the time. As far as I know, all radioactive waste is kept on site at nuclear power plants in large pools of water. There was also the Yucca Mountain project but I haven’t kept up with those details. But people stop listening after a person says they can’t make something 100% safe, even if it can be 99.9999999999999999999999632% safe.

    I suppose any comprehensive solution to global warming involving alternative energies will involve many things: wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, tidal, geothermal, etc

  18. 18
    scott g says:

    I’ll add my thanks for taking Wired to task for that anti-scientific assault on readers’ reason; I am especially grateful you’ve addressed the “clearcut old growth forests to fight global warming” idea. I fear this dangerous falsehood is so useful to its proponents that it will take great effort to repudiate.

    In its essence, the idea is bad science (as you point out), bad ecology (the spotted owl’s not the only critter that needs old forests), and plain old bad forestry (boom & bust liquidation logging produces less fiber over time). But that doesn’t stop Sierra Pacific Industries, California’s largest landowner and notorious clearcutters, and the American Forest Resource Council, the timber industry’s national lobbying and litigation front, from pushing the idea that industrial logging is an answer to global warming.

    SPI is pushing particularly hard. Here’s a page with links to various of their papers, including the December 12, 2007 Carbon Sequestration in Californian Forests; Two Case Studies in Managed Watersheds, which SPI says shows that “intensive management” — clearcutting, herbicides, fire suppression, and short rotation logging — sequesters more carbon than does letting big old forests stay forests.

    AFRC is pushing the same line, with different spins where useful. Under “Fighting Global Climate Change/ Climate Change and Forest Management” they write

    Everyone can agree that the earth’s climate is changing, while the disagreements lie in to what extent man or natural cycles are to blame. The good news is that well managed forests and the use of lumber products that sequester carbon can help address this issue. It is widely accepted that forests are a great sequester of carbon and tree planting is the number one carbon offset. Healthy, fast growing forests are critical to capturing and storing carbon, but unfortunately a majority of our nation’s federal forests are in an unhealthy condition, growing poorly and at risk to catastrophic wildfires.”

    All of which is a very long-winded way of asking why Wired is providing an echo chamber for the timber industry’s propaganda.

  19. 19
    zainal ariefin says:

    Dear Sirs; I really eager to know on how I can have the nuclear plant in my country and free of threaten and bad intervention of the superpower such as the news issues that in UN issues and what was happening and on going in mid-east counties and afgan’s country are very bad and horrible, Whereas my objective is for our people welfare and usefulness and safety defend, improving technology and science and developing my national industries, our business development to be more faster and improve more qualified education and skill-ability become much more better spreading over all in my big and large countries, more efficient and more saving energy and for high competences for our people and country as well as other developing countries such as USA, GB, Euro’s industries countries, Japan, and others. And it will making more employment opportunity, since my country have a lot of natural resources and have sufficient people which very friendly but mostly poor and have no much opportunity for improving their life. Mostly people think that superpower is very horrible due to the super power will destroy our country, if we have nuclear. In other side, they took natural resources from our country to their country which is indicated riches of uranium content, gold and the other valuable minerals. Pls advise us on how I have to do for the best of our people and for the future our country and young and future generation. I really keen very much to have support and assistance to implement the idea. thank and appreciate very much for your attention and the positive response.
    Regards, zainul ariefin

  20. 20
    George Robinson says:

    If you are using a air conditioner/heater with a COP figure of 2.92, then I realy think you should consider scraping it. Its not worth the space. The new ones are almost 6.0 nowadays.

    [Response: I believe that newly manufactured A/C in the US is supposed to have a SEER of at least 13, and it’s true that you can do better than that. In using 10 for the illustrative calculation, I was making some allowance for the installed base. –raypierre]

  21. 21
    MAZ says:

    **OFF TOPIC**
    Feedback on comment policy: I think you guys do yourself a disservice by moderating comments before they appear. It smacks of the same ‘control the message’ that almost every climate denier blog uses because they’re scared of the arguments from the ‘other side’.

    Sites such as Pharyngula, ERV, RichardDawkins do not moderate prior to publication and function successfully. It makes for more spontaneous and lively discussion.

    You still have the option to post-moderate and ban trolls. It’s also interesting / amusing to see what the reality deniers are thinking in response to real science(tm).


    [Response: We’ve thought about different ways of doing this, but given the amount of time and energy we have to do this (small) compared to the trolls (much more), the threads would quickly disintegrate and by the time we would get around to fixing it, people would have already been put off. I think we end up with some of the most informative comment threads on the subject (with a few off-topic digressions), without the noise, nonsense and aggression that can sometimes fill DotEarth or Pharyngula threads for instance. I don’t think it is too much to ask for commenters to think about being polite and constructive when they post – spontaneity is a little overrated when it comes to science. – gavin]

  22. 22
    pete best says:

    The toyota prius only really makes a difference on the urban cycle because as soon as you go out on the open road (freeway/motorway) etc it switches to its petrol engine and you end up dragging a battery around for no good reason it would seem hence urban driving in a prius can make a difference.

    Solar can store heat in the form of CSP – concentrated solar power plants which uses mirrors to heat oil. These CSP plants can do 250 MW of power and with HVDC cables that can do 3000 Km distances makes placing them in deserts attractive they can be erected quickly and once the oil is heated to nig on 800 degrees C it can provide electricty at night. wind can also provide additional night time electricty and intermittency via compressed air solutions etc. PV and solar heating of hot water are coming down in price as new silicon factories come online. Renewables are starting to reach a critical mass for cost and it will not be long before economies of scale make them competitive with fossil fuels. Countries only want the continue using coal due to political lobbying and the power that these conpanies can exert plus energy security issues that coal seemingly help out with. However Coal to Liquid plants are no way to go and burning gas for electricity is not either.

    The big question is one of scale. We use 14 TW globally today and 7 TW more come 2030. Oil provides 5 TW, Coal 4, Gas 3 and other around 1.5 to 2. Come 2050 that has to be significally changed but its looking doubtful that it can be significantly altered in time even with the momentum that sustainables are gaining because 7 TW of additional power is a lot.

  23. 23
    Tim S says:

    As far as the heating vs air conditioning question is concerned, as I always tell my wife when we fight over the thermostat setting, the most efficient form of heating is a woolly jumper. By the same logic a t-shirt and shorts are powerful weapons against heat.

    [Response: Yeah, but the difference is you can always put on a second wooly sweater, or a down jumper. What do you do when you get to the point where you have to take off the tee-shirt and shorts and it’s still too hot? Wasn’t there a Shel Silverstein poem on that theme? Anybody remember it? –raypierre]

  24. 24
    Satohhide says:

    >New England heating vs. Arizona cooling

    Iguess comfortability inside is much better than outside in the day in Arizona thanks to low humidity. At night you can sleep well putting AC off there. Comfortability does not depend only on temperature but on humidity. You must use electricity to decrease humidity.
    Why not New England heating in winter vs. New England cooling in summer?
    Wired showed a very tricky comparison.

  25. 25
    Fernando Magyar says:

    raypierre, re your comment about the party just begining.
    I actually agree with you, it is, and we will be creating whole new ways of doing things. However my point was that people in general are afraid of change. When confronted with it they usually resist it kicking and screaming and want to stick with the way things were. The folks at wired are no different.

  26. 26

    Edward Greisch says:

    Solar only works in the daytime.

    Large solar thermal electric plants store excess heat in molten salt and use it to keep the turbines turning even at night or in bad weather. Some solar thermal plants achieve almost 24/7 operation.

    Wind and solar are hundreds of times more expensive than coal or nuclear.

    Prove it. Cite a source, gives the figures, and show your work. I don’t believe it.

    We don’t have either the energy storage technology or room temperature superconductors that would make wind and solar work at an even higher price.

    Why would we want to make them work at a higher price? And we don’t need superconductors to store energy.

    This planet isn’t windy enough to get all of our energy from wind.

    This is just wrong. You haven’t done the math, have you?

  27. 27
    Eric (skeptic) says:

    “To do this effectively, you’d have to run the
    heat pump off of natural gas rather than electricity (or perhaps run it off of locally
    generated solar power or wind).” You also mention wood decaying into methane in landfills (in a parenthesis).

    I could add a “(with methane recapture)” to negate your new growth wood in landfills and then you could add a paren stating how most landfills don’t have recapture and I could add one saying that it would be easy to add. You and WIRED are engaging in a never-ending game of cherry picking and speculation.

  28. 28
    mz says:

    There are heat pump electrical heaters too. Ie an AC turned around, they cool the outside air and heat the inside air.

    The temp differences can be greater in cold climates. Sometimes it’s 40 degrees Celsius.

    Of course, insulation almost always saves a lot of energy. I read about an expatriate in Silicon Valley who was appalled how people heat the house at night and run ac during the day when you could just do with better insulation.

  29. 29
    Swade says:

    I think you should also remind everyone that worse than any of the heat/AC options is electric heat. Not only is it terribly inefficient, but it requires about 20x the demand of a traditional AC unit. So, for the electric utilities in the north, they have to put peak plants online which are usually either very expensive or very inefficient (or both!). For those houses, AC is wayyyyy “better” for the environment than heating.

  30. 30
    Lou Grinzo says:

    Let me add my thanks for this article putting WIRED’s article into proper perspective. It’s a good example of why RC is in my RSS feed reader.

    I often remind people of this in online discussions, but let me trot it out again: Publications are in the business of selling advertising. Period. They will do whatever it takes to maximize their profit from paid ads, and horrible mistakes, like this AC/heat article, will only disappear if the magazine sees a financial hit. Upset readers canceling subscriptions leads to lower ad rates leads to lower ad revenues leads to lower profits leads to editorial changes.

    Yes, there are honorable people in the magazine business–I know, I worked with many at various computer publications over the years. But that’s a business just lousy with slippery ethical slopes, from giving in to sensationalism to taking payment from companies for editorial content or slanted reviews. That’s why we need places like RC to call them on their mistakes and indulgences.

  31. 31
    Joseph O\'Sullivan says:

    I think Wired wanted to do a story about the complexities of environmental issues, but used misinformation to do it.

    Its true that the issues are complicated and there are no easy answers, but there are many factually accurate things Wired could have written about. The article stated environmentalists were giving easy answers to complicated questions and these answers were too easy to be correct. The problem was Wired gave answers that were just as easy and factually incorrect. The take-home message of the article was to bash environmentalists as too stupid or ideologically blinded to be trusted.

    Science had a news story about the spotted owls a few years back and discussed how another species of owl, the barred owl, was entering the spotted owl’s forests and hindering recovery efforts. This was an unexpected result and an interesting story. There was no need to push the talking points created by political lobbyists the way that Wired did.

    #8 (Edward Griesch) links to the web site of “environmentalists for nuclear energy”. The founder and president has stated that Greenpeace and the WWF are oil company front groups.

  32. 32
    MAZ says:

    gavin, thanks for the reply. I can see your point, although my preference would still be for a more lively comment system that the deniers could not accuse of censorship.

    The sidebar shows a link to ‘RC Form’ (…postings of a less formal kind), but does not actually lead to a forum. A free-for-all forum could be used for more ‘rough and tumble’ discussions?

  33. 33
    Charles Raguse says:

    I just now (ca 7am Pacific time) tried to post a reasoned and (I thought) well-worded comment. I was kicked off summarily as having submitted “Spam”, and advised to look for (examples given) illegal words.
    How do I find out if I have been counted as a “troll” and automatically get rejected by a computer program?

    [Response: Sorry about that. The volume of spam postings for medications, and what have you has become so great it may be making the spam filter overactive. If this continues, we might have to find some other scheme to keep spambots from posting. Could you try posting again? –raypierre]

    [Response: It’s also worth pointing out that the filter is only looking for key words associated with spammers. Mainly drug names, gambling references, specific spam sites etc. Do a scan for ‘cialis’ (which appears in specialist or socialist) or ‘soma’ (in Somalia etc.), and put in a space or hyphen as appropriate. Unfortunately, unless trolls are also working for a Russian based internet gambling ring with a sideline in online pharmacies, this is unlikely to catch them. – gavin]

  34. 34

    What about storing the daytime solar electricity (whether from photovoltaic or solar thermal) as potential gravitational energy, for nighttime release? Use some of the generating capacity to lift enormous concrete weights up inside silos hydraulically; fix their positions with ratchets; let them go again at night and direct the hydraulic pressure to the electrical generators. A completely self-contained fuel cycle! You could even put up a few extra “power silos” to reserve for a rainy day. Scalable for village use. Is this any nuttier than building a nuclear power plant, dreaming that you’ll fix the waste problem, and pretending that it doesn’t have an ongoing massive federal subsidy?

    When people talk about the “cost” of different energy sources, will they please use total economic cost?

  35. 35
    Ike Solem says:

    The Wired article is a good example of either deliberate disinformation or jaw-dropping ignorance on the part of the writer – and it might even be a little of both. The article claims that “cutting carbon” is what matters, and uses the classic “inconvenient truth” line, which should be easily recognized as a PR smear by now.

    It also uses the tobacco industry’s favorite PR line – “personal responsibility” is what matters. That’s just shorthand for “let’s not have any government regulation of the industry.”

    What they don’t discuss is the need to phase out the use of coal, petroleum and natural gas entirely – nor do they discuss how those energy sources can be replaced. You’d think a tech-fetish journal would be fascinated by things like nanotechnology advances in silicon photovoltaics systems, or “smart electrical grids” that are capable of storing and distributing energy harvested from intermittent sources, i.e. sunlight and wind, or the potential of purely electric cars to replace a good deal of transportation globally, and so on.

    What they also don’t understand is the difference between fossil carbon and photosynthetically cycled carbon. What we’ve done over the past 100 years is to pump fossil carbon out of multimillion-year old reservoirs and into the active carbon pool – the atmosphere, the oceans, the soil, and the biological components. This has already been done, and taking that carbon back out of the system would take at least a hundred years – and would cost a lot of energy – at least as much energy as was released by burning the fossil fuels in the first place. Thus, if you want to stabilize the system at the present level, there is no choice but to halt the use of fossil fuels entirely.

    It is also possible that a complete halt in the use of fossil fuels would not halt the rise of atmospheric CO2, as melting permafrost and warming oceans may become sources of atmospheric CO2. However, it is still a necessary step.

    If one wanted to know why Wired would publish articles like this, one might want to take a look at who owns and publishes Wired, as well as their basic need to sell advertising (wired does have a lot of SUV ads, as I recall):

    The problem, of course, is that fossil fuels are the most widely traded commodities on the planet, and for the owners of fossil fuel deposits, they are immensely lucrative. The thought of having no fossil fuels seems to scare investors blind, but the fact of the matter is that the new renewable energy economy will be experiencing rapid growth for the next fifty years, at least – but only if the governments step in to create across-the-board support for renewable energy, just as governments have given across-the-board support for fossil fuel exploration and production over the past century.

    Governments will also have to step in and ban the use of fossil fuels. Most of the remaining fossil fuels left will have to be left in the ground.

  36. 36
    David C. Greene says:

    This (the Wired article response) is at least the second time I found myself agreeing with raypierre – not yet a trend. I want to point out only that the geothermal heat-pump is a very attractive and potentially very useful concept, but must be used with attention paid to the underground part of the design. While it seems obvious that pumping heat into the buried part of the system will act to decrease its usefulness, there have been embarrassing and expensive failures due to inadequate sizing of the underground heat exchangers. Too often the assumption is that the temperature of the underground reservoir is unchanging, whereas that is only true over very long time timeframes. The immediate vicinity of the underground heat exchanger changes temperature in the direction to thwart efficiency. “You can look it up.”

    [Response: Well as we like to say here, a short term fluctuation doesn’t make a trend. But in this case, I’d be happy if this turned into a trend :) . Your point on subsurface heat resupply is a good one. That’s why effective geothermal heat storage systems need to tap into a large subsurface volume in order to be effective. I don’t know much about the subject, but from looking at a few systems in the process of installations, it seems that one of the things making the systems more economically feasible is the robotic micro-tunnelling technology developed for cheap cable-laying. Just another example of how much room there is for technical innovation in energy systems, and how broad the capabilities of human ingenuity. –raypierre]

  37. 37
    Arch Stanton says:

    Lee A. Arnold @34 wrote:

    >”What about storing the daytime solar electricity (whether from photovoltaic or solar thermal) as potential gravitational energy, for nighttime release?…”

    This is a good idea, and has been used for several decades world wide (albeit in reverse) by power companies that combine conventional fossil fuel generators with hydroelectric plants. At off-peak times they pump water back into reservoirs to use to increase generating capacity at peak times.

  38. 38
    l david cooke says:

    Hey raypierre,

    Regarding the Air Conditioning vs Heating article review, I think the WIRED writer just stepped into the quagmire of, “What we got here is a failure to commumicate”…. In essence, the point that they should have been attempting in their article, is for a given location the amount of energy expended to heat versus cool an average temperate zone home is higher.

    The primary reason being that in the temperate zone in the past (pre-1985) it was “normal” that the low temperature would drop down around 2 Deg. C during the winter, much more often then reach 42 Deg. C in the summer (With 22 Deg. C being the average human air temperature preference and the range being +/- 20 Deg. C). Hence, to heat an average home 20 Deg C to be in the human temperate comfort zone versus the former average of cooling the air around 9 Deg. C might be more expensive for a given amount of energy with a Heat Pump Engine.

    (Disregarding the additional fact that the main reason is that with the Heat Pump Engines using the former R12/R22 refrigerants, they would stop being effective around 2-5 Deg. C. Where in the HVAC systems would then rely on electric heat strips in the air handler. (With most systems demonstrating a total systemic efficiency of formerly around 5% and newer Heat Engines running at a maximum of 80% of that value…))

    Anyway so much for a layman’s point of view. Just a different tack; but, similar results. If you add in the temperature range effectiveness for heat pumps the truth, as most home owners are aware in the US, due to our humidity levels, the most carbon effective systems are heat pump cooling and natural gas heating. Where as in some areas such as the low humidity of the US western states you might be better served with a combination of Evaporative Water Chiller and a Solar Heat Mass/Water Heater.

    The primary issue is at the temperate extremes the primary requirements are an either or a Heat Pump Cooler or a Natural Gas heater with either one being powered by the same source (Bio-Gas) with the Heat being greater then 3 times more efficient due to lack of energy conversion necessary. (Even if you considered Solar Powered Absorption/Evaporative Condensers, you would still have to heat the Ammonia after dark….)

    Sorry about the length of the post, feel free to paraphrase or edit as appropriate for your forum.

    Dave Cooke

  39. 39
    Charles Raguse says:

    To raypierre: I did try re-posting, and again was kicked off. If successful, it would have become No. 36. I am mystified as to what I may have written to justify this, and am now more inclined to think that, a priori, I am in your computer as an automatic reject.

    I did have the presence of mind to save my “Previewed comment”, which I would like to submit separately to RealClimate, just to establish whether or not I should simply cease and desist from submitting posts.

    Thanks, Charles Raguse

    [Response: Email us the text (contrib -at- and I’ll let you know the problem. – gavin]

  40. 40
    SecularAnimist says:

    Edward Greisch wrote: “Wind and solar are hundreds of times more expensive than coal or nuclear.”

    That is hysterically false.

    Edward Greisch wrote: “We don’t have either the energy storage technology or room temperature superconductors that would make wind and solar work at an even higher price.”

    Yes, we do have the necessary energy storage technologies to backup wind and solar electricity generation with stored electricity, stored heat, pumped water or compressed air. And all of these technologies are going to be far easier, less expensive and far less dangerous to bring online at utility scale, quickly, than any expansion of nuclear power would be.

    Your reference to “room temperature superconductors” is irrelevant as such technology is completely unnecessary for a large expansion of wind and solar electricity generation.

    Edward Greisch wrote: “This planet isn’t windy enough to get all of our energy from wind.”

    No one is suggesting that we need to “get all of our energy from wind”, but you are nonetheless once again wildly wrong. According to a 2005 report A Framework for Offshore Wind Energy Development in the United States, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and General Electric, there is as much wind power potential (900,000 megawatts) off the US coasts as the current capacity of all power plants in the United States combined. And that is only the offshore wind potential. Other studies have found that the commercially exploitable wind energy of a few central US states is also sufficient to meet the entire country’s electricity needs.

    And when you add the electrical generation potential from centralized, utility-scale solar thermal concentrating plants, and distributed photovoltaics, and other sources of clean renewable energy, and the improvements that can be easily and quickly made in end-use efficiency, it is clear that we can more than meet the electricity needs of the USA without any expansion of nuclear power, and indeed we can phase out nuclear along with coal and have no further need to be troubled with the toxic pollution of the nuclear fuel cycle, or the grave dangers of accidents, terrorist attacks and weapons proliferation from nuclear power.

  41. 41

    In comment 34 Lee A. Arnold said in part,

    Use some of the generating capacity to lift enormous concrete weights … let them go again at night … Is this any nuttier than building a nuclear power plant, dreaming that you’ll fix the waste problem…?

    Much nuttier. An illustration.

    Energy stored in high-up mass tends to uncontrollably unstore itself.

  42. 42

    Didn’t read all the responses to see if someone else said “Wow, you really missed the point of the article!”, but “Wow, you really missed the point of the article.

    Now go stand in a corner for a month.

    More detailed post when I have the time to write a proper rebuttal or see who else has.

  43. 43
    Ike Solem says:

    SecularAnimist is right about the energy costs. To put all this discussion of heating and cooling buildings in perspective, here are a couple of articles:

    Stunning Solar Building Will Generate More Power Than It Needs
    (Abu Dhabi unveil plans for sustainable city).

    The Masdar Headquarters building will produce more power than it needs (an energy positive building). In fact, the solar roof (one of the largest in the world) will be constructed first, and it will power the construction of the rest of the building. The video link on this page has a great view of the sun-infused interior.

    The 1.4 million square foot building was designed by the Chicago architecture firm of Adrian Smith & Gordon Gill. It will serve as the centerpiece of Masdar City, which will end up being about a $22 billion development in Abu Dhabi (the capital of United Arab Emirates).

    Masdar Headquarters will have the lowest energy consumption per square foot, it will feature the largest photovoltaic system and the largest solar thermal driven cooling and dehumidification system. The building will also have integrated wind turbines. It will consume about 70% less water than a typical mixed-use building of its size.

    For a similar approach to solar-powered housing, but at the family-size scale, see

  44. 44
    Tim Joslin says:

    “However, to figure out how much net carbon sequestration you get out of that young tree once it’s chopped down, you need to figure what happens to it.” Do you mean “old tree” in this sentence?

    Looking at the annual carbon flux locally in the forest seems to me to be a daft starting point in analysing the problem. Surely it’s much simpler to start by looking at the total carbon stored (on average) in the forest and in any wood removed from the forest, under different management regimes. It’s difficult to imagine that a natural mature forest with growing trees, mature trees and decaying trees stores much less than the maximum amount of carbon in a given land area. Such ecosystems also provide many other services than just carbon storage, of course.

    At present most carbon removed from forests in the form of wood finds its way to the atmosphere within a few years, as you point out. Policies aimed at maximising the average lifetime of wood removed from forests are therefore likely to be much more effective at reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere than misguided attempts to increase annual carbon uptake rates by, at best, degrading natural forest but, in practice, most likely converting it into monoculture plantations.

    The priority should therefore be to focus on reducing profligate uses of wood, e.g. with taxes and incentives (e.g. to recycle paper). I find it particularly bizarre that many European “environmentalists” suppose that woodchips (or other forms of biomass) represent a sensible, “sustainable”, large-scale fuel source, at the same time as East Asian governments are trying to discourage the use of wood for disposable chopsticks!

    [Response: I did mean “young tree” in that sentence because I was focusing on the rapid carbon uptake of the rapidly growing plantation trees that would replace the old growth. To your excellent point about increasing the lifetime of wood products I would add that there’s no need to cut down old growth because we already have plenty of managed forests in the world, and we could do much more for carbon sequestration by doing a better job of increasing the carbon storage from the stream of forest products already coming out of the existing managed forests. Still, given how hard it is to keep wood from rotting, there’s a case to be made that some of the managed forests should be allowed to revert to old growth. There’s still a lot to be learned about the terrestrial carbon cycle in both managed and natural ecosystems, especially with regard to how climate change will affect the fluxes. But what we know so far tends to point more in the direction of preserving old growth, even if you’re just looking at sequestration benefits and ignoring the other values of old growth. –raypierre]

  45. 45
    Ray Ladbury says:

    WIRED is in the business of selling advertising. To do this, they need to get eyeballs onto their webpage, and a time-honored technique for doing so is the “Everything You Know Is WRONG” article. You see it all the time with political news, and usually it is no better informed than the WIRED effort. The problem is that we often treat journalists as if they actually knew something about their subject, when in reality, they have at most consulted a couple of experts, visited a couple of websites and collected facts that support their main goal of contradicting popular wisdom. But there is a conflicting goal–they don’t want to alienate the readership by taking on any controversial topics. That loses eyeballs. As a result, this often becomes an exercise in saying “Everything the experts say is wrong,” thus confirming the complacency of the readers. This is the type of journalism that relies on the readership being dumber than the journalist. Usually it’s a pretty tight race to see who is stupidest.

  46. 46
    Doug Simpson says:

    Pete Best (#22), you said “The toyota prius only really makes a difference on the urban cycle because as soon as you go out on the open road (freeway/motorway) etc it switches to its petrol engine and you end up dragging a battery around for no good reason it would seem hence urban driving in a prius can make a difference.”

    Any Prius driver knows this is just incorrect, because the Prius battery is working constantly on the highway to improve mileage.

    I regularly drive from Hartford to Boston and back and keep an eye on the energy info readout. On the Mass Pike, one rolls through hills with long downgrades and long upgrades. On the downgrades, the gas engine does often shut completely, often for miles, but the generator captures the inertia to charge up the battery, and the battery feeds back in the less steep stretches to keep the car at speed (and run the A.C., fan, radio and lights when necessary). I’ve seen entire 5 minute blocks on the readout at “99 mpg” because the engine was off, and lots of “75 mpg” readouts on those downgrades. As the car then climbs the upslope, the battery feeds back that stored energy to the electric motor, supplementing the gasoline engine and improving the mileage. The battery has a vital purpose and reason on the highway.

    On average, I get better mileage (~55mpg) at steady 55-60 mph on the highway than at ~40 mph around town.

    Pete is correct about the potential of CSP (concentrated solar power) in which a sunlight concentrator array generates heat (not electricity) that is stored in a liquid medium. Pete mentioned oil as a storage medium. Another in use and continued development (by Hartford’s own Hamilton Sundstrand ) is molten salt. Sound hot? It is hot, and already in use in nuclear power. The value of molten salt is that its high capactiy to store and hold heat smoothes out the inevitable power dip when sunlight is obscured by clouds or nightfall. The link above shows how a molten-salt CSP power plant would be configured, with data.


  47. 47

    Oh — and my new Lennox A/C? 20.5 SEER. Already see it in the 30% reduction in A/C related electric consumption. This temperature last fall (daily average temps are around 88F), the house load averaged about 1400 watts. Presently it’s around 900 watts. That’s net solar production which is actually LOWER right now due to poor sun angle (about 20 degrees off-axis), so the increased efficiency from a modern A/C, compared to one made just 8 years ago, is significant. And 23 SEER A/C units are available, just a bit more expensive.

    [Response: Bully for you! I’m glad you didn’t fall for the “crank up the A/C” nonsense. Anybody who took that at face value would have concluded there’s no point in making an effort to find efficient air conditioners. If WIRED had even tried to explain SEER ratings, that would have been of service to their readers. Since they didn’t, here we are doing it here. News you can use. –raypierre]

  48. 48
    SecularAnimist says:

    Regarding the idea that buying a used, high-efficiency, conventional gasoline-fueled car is “greener” than buying a Prius: fifteen years ago I bought a 2-year old 1991 Ford Festiva, a compact two-door, four-seat hatchback that was actually designed by Mazda and manufactured by Kia (the same car was sold outside the USA as both the Mazda 121 and the Kia Pride). It cost me $5200. I am still driving this car 15 years later, and at 17 years old it still consistently gets 35 MPG in city driving and nearly 50 MPG on the highway. The need for and cost of maintenance has been minimal.

    Certainly for my needs (daily 4-mile round trip to the subway station, weekly shopping trip, etc; and a couple of day-long highway trips each year) it has been a better transportation value than a $25,000 Prius, and given its fuel economy combined with its durability and longevity, I would not be surprised if its overall environmental impact is comparable to that of a Prius. (It gets an exhaust inspection every two years per state law and passes with flying colors, so it is a fairly “clean” burning car with regard to pollutants other than GHGs.) In any case, I plan to keep it running as long as possible (although it is getting more challenging to find parts when needed), and hope to drive it until I’m able to buy a pure electric car one of these days.

    A recent USA Today article mentioned that 20-year old Geo Metros and Ford Festivas are selling for top dollar nowadays, if you can find one. The auto industry had the ability to build 50 MPG coventional gasoline-fueled cars 20 years ago and could easily do so again; certainly no new technology is needed if it could be done with the technology of 1991.

  49. 49

    #41 Now, G.R.L. Cowan, I went to the nuclear public-relations link — Do I have the following math right?

    91.8 million kg X 44 aircraft carriers = 4,039.2 million kg of aircraft carriers

    Portland concrete = approx. 2300 kg/m^3

    44 aircraft carriers = 1.756 million m^3 of concrete = 1 cube Portland concrete, 120.85 meters on a side
    divide by 4, to make it manageable = 4 cubes of concrete, 76 meters on a side

    Burj Dubai projected to be 2684 ft. tall = approx. 18 ten-storey silo buildings (at 15 ft. per storey)
    using 4 smaller concrete blocks = 76 silos


    1 nuclear power plant = 44 aircraft carriers at the top of the Burj Dubai = approx. 76 ten-storey silos, with 76 meter-square concrete cubes in them.

    Of course this disregards the acceleration of gravity — but right now, I have to go to work and crawl under a house.

    These systems don’t have to be all in one place.

    If they pass building codes, they won’t tend to “uncontrollably unstore.” Indeed, there is NO energy lost in gravitational storage, no matter how long.

    What does a nuclear pile tend uncontrollably to do?

  50. 50
    Hank Roberts says:

    > preserving old growth

    Yep. Much work has been published recently, e.g.

    Production, Respiration, and Overall Carbon Balance in an Old-growth Pseudotsuga- Tsuga Forest Ecosystem
    in Ecosystems
    ISSN 1432-9840 (Print) 1435-0629 (Online)
    Issue Volume 7, Number 5 / August, 2004
    DOI 10.1007/s10021-004-0140-9
    . and cites therein.

    Field work, amazing:

    “… Annual weather events may have a larger influence on carbon flux than previously thought.

    The most dramatic such event since the crane began operating was 1997-98’s El Nino, Shaw says. With more than three months of warm, dry weather, the forest floor became so dry that wood and other debris decayed much quicker than usual. The rate outpaced the carbon being absorbed during photosynthesis in the stand. The site became a source of carbon in late summer, giving off more than it absorbed.

    One can’t help but think what this might portend for the future if global climate change leads to longer, drier summers in the region. …”