Keeping Cool

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, May 31, 1996

One year ago, the chairman of a local utility said that he hoped for a long, hot summer so that his company would profit from selling lots of electricity to operate air-conditioning systems.

Last week, both of Connecticut's big electric utilities asked their customers to use less power because of a serious regional shortage of electricity. Among other problems, three of Connecticut's four large nuclear power plants are shut down indefinitely for safety reasons, and the fourth may soon be. The three closed reactors may have containment problems similar to those at the infamous Chernobyl site. An accident like Chernobyl at Connecticut's Millstone atomic complex could contaminate all dairy products, fresh vegetables and meat as far away as North Carolina and Michigan, so it is obviously wise to err on the side of safety.

Meanwhile, the city of Bridgeport is in the process of installing central air conditioning at Curiale School, a 12-year-old building. On a cool day this week, the building was very warm and stuffy. I'm told that it was unbearable in the record-breaking heat last week. Curiale School wasn't designed to be comfortable in hot weather. It has few windows and just a single small one in each classroom that opens. On bright spring days, most classes have to have their lights on, because there is so little natural light. Curiale is just one of many schools that was built in the last few decades which assumed that we could ignore the free natural lighting and cooling of traditional school buildings, and buy ever more electricity.

How much electricity we need as a society, depends partly on how we design our buildings, which in turn depends to some extent on the predicted cost and availability of electricity.

The folks who profit by building, operating and owning nuclear power plants used to tell us that they would dependably produce enormous quantities of electricity that would be "too cheap to meter." Architects and school boards responded by building schools which need lots of electricity to be comfortable. Now we've got three large, multibillion dollar "dinosaurs" at the other end of Connecticut which produce no electricity, and lots of schools which are totally dependent on large quantities of cheap electricity. These downed power plants cost millions for expensive replacement power and will cost tens of millions more to repair (if that's even possible). And remember, we still haven't figured out how to deal with the exceedingly dangerous radioactive wastes from these nuclear relics.

Because of the promise of cheap electricity, and their disconnection from reality and sensual delight, architects designed and built schools which paid no attention to the low-cost, easy, quiet ways to keep buildings bright and cool. I've worked in several old school buildings with thick masonry walls, high ceilings, big windows which open at the bottom and the top (for good air circulation) and large trees nearby. They were reasonably comfortable even in very hot weather.

But, even as the promise of plentiful, cheap, safe nuclear electricity is shown to be a lie, our society continues to build, as fast as possible it seems, buildings which are totally dependent on electricity for comfort, all year round, and for lighting 24 hours a day. School buildings are just the tip of the iceberg. Think of all those giant retail stores which cover acres of former farm land and receive no natural lighting, heating or cooling. Think of all those new homes oriented so they receive the most heat from the sun in the summer and none of its warmth in the winter.

With well-placed trees and windows, our small house is nearly always comfortable. At most, on very hot days, we use a fan to circulate the air. My son tells of buildings he visited in India, with brick walls and thatched roofs which remain at 65, despite outside temperatures of 100, just because of the way their design encourages air circulation.

So we need to wake up and pay attention. We need to learn how to build buildings and run a society not so dependent on technologies which are very expensive and potentially so damaging. The environment and our pocketbooks will both benefit.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.