Peter Powell

My “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay (had I written one) would have included details of a trip to a family reunion in Pennsylvania. In the four living generations there are 300 of us, which means that I didn’t recognize most of my relatives. But family is family.

Another summer adventure came not on vacation, but while on assignment forThe NEWS. That was to a Renewable Energy and Sustainability Lifestyle Fair. It took place on a hot and humid day at a county fair grounds about 100 miles west of Chicago. The emphasis was on wind and solar power.

Like many, I had heard about the topics and even written about them from time to time. But this was my first time to talk one-on-one with the proponents who were exhibiting and speaking at various workshops.

I confess that the one-day event still caused a lot of head scratching. But what I did discover is that while there can be many advantages to solar and wind, not the least of which is environmental correctness, there are still many challenges in terms of upfront costs and reliability, which the advocates claim can be overcome with more commitment to the technologies.

One issue is always storage of power harvested from wind and the sun. When the sun goes behind the clouds or the wind isn’t blowing, systems have to revert back to the electrical grid and power generated by coal-burning plants.

One element of a lot of these environmental alternatives is that as they draw more and more attention, more and more cautions are being leveled as to what they can accomplish.

An example is an article that ran in EarthTalk, a newspaper column prepared by the editors ofE/The Environmental Magazine.

In a Q&A section someone asked about cars that can be modified to run on water.

That caught my attention because one part of the fair I attended during the summer was an exhibit of about a dozen cars, most of which had homemade modifications in order to improve efficiency and curb fuel costs. I don’t recall the water aspect on any of those, but there could have well been.

The reply to the question took a skeptical position and in fact drew on yet another point about a lot of new ideas: Do they really end up saving energy, which is supposed to be the main point?

Here’s part of the response: “These kits, which attach to a car’s engine, use electrolysis to split the water into the component molecules - hydrogen and oxygen - and then inject the resulting hydrogen into the engine’s combustion process to power the car along with the gasoline … But experts say the energy equation on this type of system is not, in reality, efficient at all. For one, the electrolysis process uses energy, such as electricity in the home or the onboard car battery, to operate. By the law of nature, then, the system uses more energy making hydrogen than the resulting hydrogen can supply.”


We know about the laws of nature. In plumbing, it is called gravity; in HVACR, it is physics. We can’t bend those laws all that much.

For the HVACR contractors and the equipment they deal with, there are always the upfront costs of innovations balanced against the payback and how hard it is to sell payback.

In the solar, wind, and automotive section, efforts to offset negatives are being couched in such terms as greater good, environmentally correct, and the right thing to do.

In HVACR those terms are not making as much of an impact. But do they have to?

Consider the comments during a recent Energy Efficient Symposium at Modine Manufacturing that I attended. In that decidedly HVAC setting, all those energy efficiency efforts didn’t really focus all that much on the greater good. “It is about jobs and profits for companies,” said one speaker in noting the latest equipment has a much more rapid return on investment and ends up saving a lot of energy.

How about that? Making money - and still doing the greater good.

Publication date:10/19/2009