Being cool in the heat

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Anyone involved in an outdoor event such as our annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair is always concerned about the weather. Whether a summer thunderstorm or a heat wave, attendance drops and participants are uncomfortable. As last Saturday and Sunday (Aug. 23-24) were predicted to be in the low 90s, we made sure we had fans in place and plenty of drinking water.

But the lack of air conditioning presents a challenge few Americans are willing to meet. For those with outdoor occupations, dealing with extremes in weather is inherent in their work. The few people who refuse to have air conditioners are the minority. In fact, air conditioning, television, computers and electronic games contribute to a massive disconnect of people from the environment contributing to the illusion of controlling nature.

Considering the number of deaths from previous heat-wave disasters in Chicago in 1995 and Europe in 2003, air conditioning moves from a preference to a necessity for vulnerable populations. Such heat waves also reduce overall productivity.

Earlier generations just accepted a less active life during the heat of summer, but today’s citizenry has been raised in air-conditioned spaces from home to car, to school, office, mall and other places.

In 2010, Stan Cox pointed out that given the challenge of climate change, widespread use of air conditioning is not the wisest decision in a society that already is a major source of global carbon releases. The coolants used in air conditioners also have adverse environmental impacts. Combining our use with the global spread of air conditioning makes the growing concerns regarding its use understandable.

If we burn fuel to generate electricity to run our air conditioners, the heat from electrical generation contributes to higher temperatures in urban settings. We wonder just how much heat is added to the environment when a city the size of Chicago is running air conditioners during a heat wave.

While nuclear plants do not release carbon during their operation, they do have to dispose of substantial amounts of heat to either the atmosphere or nearby bodies of water. During Europe’s deadly heat wave of 2003, nuclear power plants using rivers to dispose of excessive heat limited their production to avoid killing fish.

It is possible to live without a chemically cooled breeze as earlier populations did. Drawing drapes or adding sun block materials to prevent sunlight penetration into a building, opening windows to take advantage of any available breeze, using fans, grilling outdoors, drinking plenty of non-alcoholic liquids, taking a cold shower, or sleeping outdoors in a safe place were all common practices before widespread use of air conditioning.

A whole-house fan can move enough air through a home to take advantage of lower nighttime temperatures. Upgrading energy efficiency, installing geothermal units and using renewable energy sources can reduce air conditioning demands.

Ethical Electric offers consumers a chance to buy their electricity from wind farms, avoiding some of the concerns of using air conditioning.

It appears we are in a heat wave that some meteorologists believe will continue into the first week of September.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Aug. 27-Sept. 2, 2014, issue

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