Can Suffering Be Replaced By Solutions?

Blog #76 CaliforniaGeo 9-30-20

It’s Gettin’ Personal 

I work in a sector of our society that is attempting to decarbonize homes and places of business in order to lower emissions and global warming.  They are the major culprits in climate change. phenomenon is like no other in our society, and the continuing effects on us will worsen.  This phenomenon is like no other in our society and the continuing effects on us will worsen.

While relief from the west coast’s long heat storm was upon us due to a Canadian-born cold front that brought snow to Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado, we benefited from winds that finally blew our resident smoke to the south.  “Plumas County Blue” skies returned, but because our power company’s rickety transmission lines weren’t trusted in high winds, our power was out for 44 hours until the winds dropped to prevent new fire ignitions.   

With clearer skies and strong winds on 9/8, I could see that the most recent fire nearby was blowing up into a pyro-cumulus cloud, revealing a high rate of burn and accelerated spread that sprinted to Oroville in what has become national news.

Our close-in Claremont Fire has merged with the exploding Bear Fire to its west, and that has forced evacuation of Bucks Lake, LaPorte, and has nibbled at the City of Oroville.  This wind-driven sprint took out the small communities of Feather Falls and Berry Creek, with over a dozen deaths. 

For those in the Sierra National Forest to the south of us, evacuations and burned acreage have exploded due to the uncontrolled Creek Fire.  In the south state, a fire near San Bernardino began with celebratory fireworks set off in the midst of a “gender reveal” party.  There is no diagnosis for such action in a forest setting other than “crazy stupid,” but authorities have now closed all California National Forests to help prevent a repeat.   


Record-breaking heat, repetitive droughts, accelerated fires, and unusually high winds may be a symptom of a larger problem—climate change caused by global warming enhanced by heat trapping “greenhouse gases” such as carbon dioxide and methane.  Our world is increasingly powered by carbon molecules, and when these decay or are burned, free carbon bonds with oxygen to build CO2.  Fifty years of tracking has proven that carbon dioxide is on the rise, and as ice caps increase their melt rate and calving frequency into the sea—we can only watch and wait for millions of square miles of permafrost in Arctic regions to melt, releasing methane from long-frozen bogs.  Once that methane breaks out, there’s no controlling or stopping global warming and all its driving forces toward climate change.  Time magazine recognizes this imminent threat on its cover, below, emphasizing that carbon must be cut so that global warming can be stopped in time.  

Our oceans cover three-fifths of the planet’s surface and are the largest mass where sunshine is directly converted to heat.  This happens at the water’s surface but is dissipated below until the top layer reaches a point where that water can no longer accept as much solar heat.  It also cannot “digest” as much of the heat generated from land mass that’s in ambient air.  Warmer oceans evaporate more water into clouds and make storms more powerful.  More rain in some places often results in greater drought for others.  Long-standing patterns of human culture and activity are becoming impossible, and disruption will increase.

The United States has been the world leader in carbon combustion and emissions for decades.  It would be poetic if we somehow led the world with an accelerated carbon reduction record.  The policies we enact in the next 10 years may save or sink us.  I came across an interesting quotation recently that takes a global and historical posture:

We may be the only species to die off because it wasn’t cost effective to save ourselves…or so we thought.” 

—Becky Merton

Merton’s phrase reminds me of a long-ago quote from the cartoon alligator, Pogo, who said:

“We have met the enemy, and he is Us.” 


Walking Away from Carbon

Whether it is policy, law, or regulation, whatever we face in the category of global warming and climate change is due to our chosen status quo.  And the current program is to keep using carbon.  Some of that comes from dependence, a perceived lack of alternatives, or a gap in imagination and fortitude.  But we keep on extracting, processing, and burning carbon.

We know there is strong ideology in line with the White House favoring the extractive and polluting industries, but greater belief in and an understanding of global warming has galvanized a growing ideological public preference for all things “green.”  This thinking has been adopted by a number of corporations who have established particular carbon reduction goals, but as expected, most of the businesses tied to fossil fuels have rejected any change.  Just this month, the current White House and Cabinet leadership has re-opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.  Legal action will likely be filed to stop it.

We HAVE the Technical Capacity

Too small a slice of the American public is aware of or understands the growing attention to The Green New Deal, the electrification of our society, or efforts at decarbonizing future buildings or existing ones.  The effort to make such changes is likely to hinge on the preferences of the nation’s majority of citizens, assuming those who represent them in Congress will reflect that concern.

A Massachusetts group led by mothers that started out as energy efficiency promoters to weatherize older homes and save money for consumers grew into something else very powerful.  The Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) went on to become methane leak detectives.  Eventually, they mapped Boston and surrounding areas for leaks that were moderate-to-massive coming from the utility’s 100 year-old corroded distribution pipes. 

HEET’s activism and partnership with Mothers Out Front put them in a position to engage with three gas utilities and state regulators to avoid spending $9 Billion to tear up and replace those lines in and around Boston.  Consultants from the engineering firm BuroHappold identified the feasibility and cost effectiveness of establishing GeoMicroDistricts, circuits of water-filled pipes that would serve geo heat pump connections just as customers currently tap gas lines.  Utilities would begin to charge thermal fees to customers for that useful water branch circuit, and multiple buildings would share energy with each other along this thermal highway.  Regulators have approved, and three pilot programs are underway to verify the engineers’ projections.

Geo heat pump technology is not only helpful on a large scale, but on a smaller one at the residential and small commercial level.  They can handle heating, cooling, and hot water pre-heating without carbon.  They run on electricity, which (every year) is composed of increasingly greener electrons.  Some of their unique advantages are that they:

  • Work in any weather, any location, any time
  • Stand out as the longest lasting, most efficient HVAC equipment available*
  • Reduce grid demand peaks and improve the grid’s load factor
  • Don’t consume water for cooling as cooling towers do

*  The Environmental Protection Agency published this as a written conclusion over 30 years ago, yet we are not following through on a policy basis based on climate change defense.

The central core of geo heat pumps is their use of a refrigerant compression cycle that has been widely deployed for decades.  You know it as your kitchen’s refrigerator/freezer or the air conditioner in your vehicle, except that geo heat pumps are tied to liquid circulating in pipes, underground.  This technology both heats and cools because it contains a simple reversing valve, controlled by a thermostat.  Because of this, the earth serves as geo heat pump’s renewable thermal battery, accepting waste heat in summer and returning it in winter.

Geo heat pumps won’t solve the global warming crisis by themselves, but they will join with electric vehicles, electric aircraft, and electric cooking appliances to decarbonize our society.   Once an occupied building gets Geo, you’re looking at a carbon emissions stoppage for the remainder of that building’s multi-hundred year life.  All these kinds of savings add up—in money AND carbon.

The U.S. could be helping to lead the world’s march toward climate stability—we just need a new brand of determination that flows through our society faster than global warming does.

—Bill Martin