Feedback loops

We have to go to Redding on Thursday. It’s going to be hot. Look at those “Low” temperatures: 75 and 77 ºF!

My world is warming, that much I know.

This creates a feedback loop. As temperatures rise, people need more indoor climate control. In today’s world that means “air conditioning.” An air conditioner is just a refrigerator. A fridge though only has to cool a small box. An air conditioner has to cool a room. Or a whole house. Or an entire building.

More demand for air conditioning means more demand for electricity. And that means more primary energy. Coal and gas plants have to burn more coal and more natural gas. More wind and solar farms have to be built. Construction projects need building materials and the energy to power the machinery. (Even nuclear plants have to replace the fuel rods now and then.) All of that requires more ore to be dug, more minerals extracted, more products manufactured, and more fossil fuels to be consumed. All of those processes also produce waste heat, and the more we do them, the more waste heat we make.

So, the hotter it gets, the hotter it gets. We have to heat up the world to cool down our little corner of it.

Much of the electricity in the West comes from hydroelectric projects. Dams. You need full reservoirs to get the most out of a hydroelectric system. Warmer weather means faster evaporation from those big, flat, bodies of water. And drier winters means less snowpack, and thus a lot less spring meltwater to fill the streams that fill the reservoirs behind the dams. The dams need falling water to spin turbines that make our electricity. The electricity we need more of because it is getting hotter!

That’s the feedback loop. We’re hot, so we run our A/C more, so we heat up the planet more, so we get hotter, and run the A/C even more, ad infinitum. Well, it won’t last forever. There’s no infinity here. Eventually the system will break down. Either the A/C will quit or the electricity will go out or both. Or civilization will collapse. Entropy will ensue, that’s for sure, and that means we’ll be scrambling to keep up.

Civilization doesn’t have to collapse, of course. That’s just a worst-case scenario. But we’ve certainly got plenty of scrambling to do to keep things working. The investments in energy, technology, and manufacturing necessary to maintain and improve our infrastructure in a changing world are enormous. Here in California, a modern place, most of the homes already built have no A/C and have to be retro-fitted. My house is 100 years old! It’s not nearly insulated enough. If it were built today it would be sealed up as tight as a zip-lock baggie. That would reduce my energy consumption.

That’s the kind of feedback loop we want. If we insulate our homes better, we cut down on our demand for electricity. We should all be living in half-buried foam igloos if we really wanted to be energy-efficient, but that’s not going to be a popular choice. In the meantime, bust out the weather-stripping and save the world.

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