Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Steven Chu is Nuts

This speaks for itself. To say nothing of the cost of painting all the roofs in the world white (upwards of $30 a gallon for paint) it stands to reason that making all that paint would involve processes that produce significant 'carbon usage' and would probably greatly offset any actual benefit, even assuming that the good doctor is right about global warming in the first place. What's more disturbing is that this is the conversation you get with the country's leading government official on energy policy. Not environmental issues but energy policy. He claims that white roofs will cut consumption. I claim that he's got needs that the other kids don't.

I'm interested in any cheaper and less ridiculous options from my homeowner friends. Drop me a comment with ideas you have to reduce home energy consumption that aren't idiotic. I'll start.

Solar Powered Attic Fans.


Christian Nunciato said...

Okay wait, I'm confused. ;)

If dark colors absorb light and radiate heat (which they do), and combating heat requires energy (which it does), and if you happen to have it, air conditioning costs more money and uses more energy than not having air conditioning does (check, check), then what's wrong with opting for lighter-colored roofs as opposed to dark ones in order to use less energy? Global warming or not, doesn't that make brain-dead sense, if only to reduce your own energy bill? When it's 90 degrees outside and you've got yard work to do, what do you reach for? Your short-sleeve white tee shirt or your long-sleeve black one? This seems like an absolute no-brainer to me, man.

Maybe it's no silver bullet (I don't think there is ont), but come on -- you can't just dismiss the idea outright because you think producing ten bazillion tons of white paint unprompted will produce a net negative effect on the environment. That's just silly. If you assume people and building-owners will only paint their roofs when they have to, which I think we can (because of the cost required to do so), then perhaps when those folks go to Home Depot to buy paint, they choose white as opposed to brown, and little by little Home Depot discovers people are buying more white paint than brown, so they order more white than brown from the paint company, and the paint company gradually starts making more white than brown -- but no more than they're already making today, right? Because demand hasn't changed. No change in production, because no change in demand -- unless everyone chooses to paint their roofs white tomorrow, which seems .. well, unlikely.

So am I missing something?

Ombibulous said...

You make a very good point Chris but you in fact are missing several things. The first is that most roofs are not painted, they are in fact shingled with asphalt shingles. Asphalt as you know is by its very nature black. While they don't make cheap and easily available white asphalt, they do make white gravel which makes lighter colored shingles. They make it in limited quantities because light colored stone is less abundant and less readily available than black. So sure I was glib about producing tons of paint but paint is really the only viable way to change the color of that many roofs. Also in regards to roads, they are made from asphalt for very similar reasons, plus as a bonus asphalt is flexible and less prone to damage due to cold weather. Concrete which may help absorb slightly less sun, can be prone to different weather related problems and the road departments choose materials on which are most cost effective for the region and it's weather. Changing isn't just a matter of switching out one raw material for another equal raw material. Sacrifices will be made and at a cost.

Furthermore I'll point out that this is not the suggestion of an environmental activist or someone encouraging people to voluntarily engage in a change which might benefit them. This is a government official suggesting energy policy for the entire country. As he is suggesting a policy that would only be minimally effective and only if adopted universally it's easy to suspect he is talking about compulsory changes not voluntary ones. As the average roof is shingled with 20-30 year shingles the change would be so gradual as to not have much effect at all unless the government forces a time table which would dramatically increase the cost of home ownership. I'm sure as a home owner yourself you would not want to see this happen.

And what of people whose homes are shingled or roofed with non-white materials for a reason, be it aesthetic or practicle? For instance the vast majority of the country who live in mixed climates and like the warming property of their roof in the winter. Who will protect the rights of those property owners? Remember that the current administration has had little to no respect for the property rights of a great many people so far. This week the President has nominated a supreme court justice who has a record of opposing the rights of individuals in cases of eminent domain.

All this for what could in Chu's own admission account for only an 11 year shift in just automotive contributions to the already questionable global warming progression theory? And only that if everyone, everywhere was willing and able to participate? This really sounds like a good idea?

Christian Nunciato said...

Roofs may not be painted, but all roofs are colored. (My own roof, in fact, is painted; part of it's tiled, but the non-visible portion, which is to say about 3/4 of it, is indeed covered with light-gray sealant -- painted, basically, like most of the homes on my street and in my neighborhood, as a quick pass-over with Google Maps will reveal.) Regardless of the material you choose -- wood, tar, Spanish tile, gravel, Cheerios -- its color will have a direct effect on light absorption and heat retention. Again, this is brain-dead simple and impossible to refute.

Nothing I've read so far suggests Mr. Chu is signaling a government-backed assault on the rights of property owners to force them to paint their roofs white at their own expense. If that were the case, you're right, I'd be freaking out --- but I'm not, because there's no indication at all that's something to be concerned about.

When, on the other hand, it comes time to re-tile/repaint/reseal/re-shingle my roof -- not if, but when (and you know how much cash we have on hand right now, which ain't much, so you can be sure I'm not relishing the idea of such a project) -- you can bet I'll consider the color carefully. Not because someone's twisting my arm, but because I choose to do so, because doing so would have a direct effect on my energy bill.

I'm all for aesthetics, believe me. But we live our lives at eye level: the uppermost surfaces of the buildings of our world are largely invisible to us; they're seen by almost nobody but building owners, roofing contractors and air travelers. In such cases, it simply doesn't matter what color the roof is. Not aesthetically, anyway. Thermodynamically, though, yes, it does.

So again, it's only one thing, and it's a small thing, so if you feel like it, do it, but if not, don't. The same goes for wind power, solar power, fuel efficiency, etc. No one thing will be the singular solution. The solution (to the extent one even accepts the existence of a problem) is ultimately going to come in the form of a thousand or a billion individual and seemingly insignificant (and hopefully self-interested and voluntary) solutions. The free choice of roof color is only one of them.

It's exactly like making a budget. If you set out to make a budget, and at the end of the month you find you've come up a bit short, you don't throw out the budget in disgust and interpret the shortfall as evidence that budgets are preposterous and a complete waste of time -- you go back to the budget, cut a dollar here, two dollars there, and ultimately, hopefully, you reach an equilibrium. They're a complete pain in the ass, but they also work.

Ombibulous said...

Chris I'm not arguing the physics of white surfaces absorbing less heat than black surfaces. I'm arguing the relative viability of switching based on the fact that the materials used currently weren't chosen arbitrarily but in fact because of the properties they offer the home-owner and the road builder. Be it price due to availability or the warming properties that dark shingles provide. It may, perhaps help some people with their energy bill to go with lighter colored roofs. But I doubt very highly where you live it will help as you have cold weather as well.

More specifically I think it's important to note again that the energy secretary doesn't represent a scientific opinion about what people should do on their own, he represents the direction of policy for the United States Energy Department. I have yet to see a binding government policy suggesting that people do what they want but simply hoping that they do what the government thinks would be helpful. The government has only one avenue for policy and that is requiring compliance through law and regulation. So when Steven Chu says he want's people to get white roofs, he's saying he wants policy to make people get white roofs. Which will, as I'm sure you are aware be bad for people who use energy to heat their houses in colder climates. Which would constitute the majority of the United States.

I can imagine that it's a useful suggestion for people in California where Dr. Chu comes from that white roofs might be worth the added expense of less available materials, but en-mass it seems like he's taking a very rudimentary idea and using it as an opportunity to regulate yet another aspect of people's lives without a significant understanding of how it will effect individual citizens. Truth be told if white roofs would significantly reduce your power consumption during the summer then the people who make white shingles would be marketing that aspect much harder. As it stands they aren't.

Mel said...

My understanding of the white-roof issue is that while you save some money on energy bills in the summer, you end up spending more in the winter--and the net energy consumption of a house with a white roof is in fact higher than that of a house with a black roof... unless you live in a consistently warm climate. But even people in Orange County turn on their heaters a few times a year, don't they?

And considering people usually cool houses with electricity and warm them with gas, and also considering that a lot of electricity in CA comes from nuclear & wind power, to use more gas would not only be wasteful but it would also increase your, ahem, "carbon footprint." Not to mention if you live somewhere with cold, snowy winters, like, say, the Pacific Northwest.

This of course addresses Chris' point--that hey, what's it going to hurt? and not Ben's point--that of, "this is more bad policy trying to be passed by an Administration that doesn't even know where it gets all of its information" (see Obama being blissfully ignorant of the NGA today).

I might also add that countries where it is truly hot all year--where they might benefit from white roofs & roads--are mostly far too poor to afford blacktop on their streets, much less their houses. Mostly they use straw and dirt. But I digress.

Christian Nunciato said...

Okay good, then it sounds like we're not disagreeing on the content of the statement -- that lighter-colored surfaces attract and retain less heat -- but what it means that the guy who delivered it happens to be employed by the Obama administration. That's something, at least.

What you guys see as a political statement, I just see as a statement of physical fact: the lines between the quotation marks, not what's written (or unwritten) between them. You can make the argument that because he's in a political position, that every word out of his mouth is a legislative threat, but I'd argue that's just flawed logic: he's a Nobel-prize-winning physicist from Berkeley whose life has been devoted to the sciences. He's not the Speaker of the House. Judge him on what he says, not on what you think he seems to be implying, given the nature of his position, etc., etc.

So for my part, I just don't think we're in for a government-mandated assault on your choice of roofing materials; that just isn't something I can imagine happening in the real world anytime soon. But to be fair, maybe you're right -- I could be totally wrong.

History will decide. ;)

Ombibulous said...

I'm still trying to figure out how when he says "if you take ALL the buildings and make their roofs white... and you do this UNIFORMLY' that this isn't a policy suggestion.

This same guy has in the past spoken about climate change policy in terms of housing inspectors the same kind who currently require you to update the wiring in your house.

And to be fair lets both note that while Chu has a lot of interest in climate issues, his Nobel Prize and his area of academic expertise is in using lasers to isolate atoms. He has no real climate science credentials. He does however have a significantly large group of friends and colleagues who would benefit financially from a shift in the focus of our energy policy and it's funding towards their geo-engineering idea. It is his friends at Lawrence Berkley Labs that are pushing for government funding for this particular white roof idea as we speak. So he is talking about using your money to pay for this idea.