Politics and the Building Industry

Climate Change Initiative

Coal Fired Power Plants in Danger
I am not sure how many folks listened to President Obama's speech this week regarding climate change initiatives.  I know that I was not one.  However, I have read the document that served as the background for the speech and there are some things in this document that folks in the building design community and mission critical world, in particular, should pay attention to.  Those things could have a significant impact on the types of systems that we can design and implement in the coming years.

The theme of the speech and the document is primarily reduction of carbon emissions and increases in "renewable" sources of energy.  There are some other things in the document that are focused on electric generation infrastructure.  However there is a potentially ominous element to that topic that is related to the overarching goal of reducing carbon emissions. 

By means of a "Presidential Memorandum" Mr. Obama has instructed the EPA to accelerate transitioning power plants to "clean" energy sources, i.e. anything but coal.  As we have seen in some other cases in the HVAC industry as soon as the EPA has a mandate of that sort they move quickly to implement regulations that may, or may not, be carefully thought out for the old "unintended consequences" issue.

In my opinion the danger is rapidly removing significant generating capacity from the grid at a pace that cannot be matched on the construction side.  Even though the document also outlines a directive to speed up permitting of power plants it is still a fact that building a multi-megawatt power plant can take years.  With coal being the primary energy source for roughly 40% of US power plants you can see how a too quick implementation of rules that curtail their use can lead to problems.  Many states already operate on the edge of rolling blackouts and brownouts each summer so shutting down or limiting coal fired plants could get ugly.

Exacerbating this problem is the rapid and continuing growth of the data center market.  When these things come on line they gobble up megawatts of generating capacity in a single site...and they can come on line in a matter of months, not years.  Even if they never reach full utilization the power companies must be prepared to provide that power.  ASHRAE and others have tried, somewhat in vain, to communicate that these centers can operate without the heavy energy use of compressors or chillers.  As long as the local electric utility still has generating capacity that can be allocated to the data center this is OK...although not a very "sustainable" approach if you believe in that concept.  But, if that same utility now has to shut down 10 or 20 percent of its generating capacity then there may simply not be enough power to allow the luxury of overly cold air in the data center.

The implications for other building types are similar, although not nearly as extreme.  Systems that optimize the use of outside air as their primary cooling source augmented by smaller compressor or chiller plants could become the basis of design.  Concepts such as chilled beams that utilize higher chilled water temperatures and minimal fan power might need to migrate to smaller buildings than you see them in today.  And building shells will need to make more extensive use of passive and active shading systems.

So, once again, the building industry is going to be impacted by external forces that may have the best of intentions but that will also require rethinking of how we design and operate those buildings.

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