One year ago, the chairman of a local utility said that he hoped for a long, hot
summer so that his company would profit from selling lots of electricity to
operate air-conditioning systems.
Last week, both of Connecticut's big electric utilities asked their customers to
use less power because of a serious regional shortage of electricity. Among
other problems, three of Connecticut's four large nuclear power plants are shut
down indefinitely for safety reasons, and the fourth may soon be. The three
closed reactors may have containment problems similar to those at the infamous
Chernobyl site. An accident like Chernobyl at Connecticut's Millstone atomic
complex could contaminate all dairy products, fresh vegetables and meat as far
away as North Carolina and Michigan, so it is obviously wise to err on the side
Meanwhile, the city of Bridgeport is in the process of installing central air
conditioning at Curiale School, a 12-year-old building. On a cool day this
week, the building was very warm and stuffy. I'm told that it was unbearable in
the record-breaking heat last week. Curiale School wasn't designed to be
comfortable in hot weather. It has few windows and just a single small one in
each classroom that opens. On bright spring days, most classes have to have
their lights on, because there is so little natural light. Curiale is just one
of many schools that was built in the last few decades which assumed that we
could ignore the free natural lighting and cooling of traditional school
buildings, and buy ever more electricity.
How much electricity we need as a society, depends partly on how we design our
buildings, which in turn depends to some extent on the predicted cost and
availability of electricity.
The folks who profit by building, operating and owning nuclear power plants used
to tell us that they would dependably produce enormous quantities of electricity
that would be "too cheap to meter." Architects and school boards responded by
building schools which need lots of electricity to be comfortable. Now we've got
three large, multibillion dollar "dinosaurs" at the other end of Connecticut
which produce no electricity, and lots of schools which are totally dependent on
large quantities of cheap electricity. These downed power plants cost millions
for expensive replacement power and will cost tens of millions more to repair
(if that's even possible). And remember, we still haven't figured out how to
deal with the exceedingly dangerous radioactive wastes from these nuclear
Because of the promise of cheap electricity, and their disconnection from
reality and sensual delight, architects designed and built schools which paid no
attention to the low-cost, easy, quiet ways to keep buildings bright and cool.
I've worked in several old school buildings with thick masonry walls, high
ceilings, big windows which open at the bottom and the top (for good air
circulation) and large trees nearby. They were reasonably comfortable even in
very hot weather.
But, even as the promise of plentiful, cheap, safe nuclear electricity is shown
to be a lie, our society continues to build, as fast as possible it seems,
buildings which are totally dependent on electricity for comfort, all year
round, and for lighting 24 hours a day. School buildings are just the tip of
the iceberg. Think of all those giant retail stores which cover acres of former
farm land and receive no natural lighting, heating or cooling. Think of all
those new homes oriented so they receive the most heat from the sun in the
summer and none of its warmth in the winter.
With well-placed trees and windows, our small house is nearly always
comfortable. At most, on very hot days, we use a fan to circulate the air. My
son tells of buildings he visited in India, with brick walls and thatched roofs
which remain at 65 despite outside temperatures of 100 , just because of the
way their design encourages air circulation.
So we need to wake up and pay attention. We need to learn how to build buildings
and run a society not so dependent on technologies which are very expensive and
potentially so damaging. The environment and our pocketbooks will both benefit.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C 1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135. Stevenson, CT 06491.