Swimming pool heated by crematorium among year’s ‘interesting’ stories.

An English animal shelter is collecting the body heat from the animals and adding it into the heating mix.


Oh, what a year it’s been with the stock market doing what it did and our politicians doing what they do. And then there are the Europeans. We can always count on them for excitement. 

In spite of all the scary stuff that’s been happening, there were still plenty of things amazing me this year. Let’s take a look back. It just might make us smile for a change.

A new way to heat homes. Last summer, a group of computer scientists proposed that folks could heat their homes by adopting a server and using the large amount of heat it exhausts in place of a furnace. This would do away with the need for those huge server farms, which call for all sorts of cooling power and become targets for terrorists and hackers. If lots of us adopted servers, the servers could all communicate with the cloud, and in exchange for hosting the machine, we’d get free heat. The one thing that amazed me as I looked into this, however, was that none of the geeks considered what to do with the server during the summer months. Good to see them thinking, though.

Cool jackets. But the Japanese (and can’t we always count on the Japanese to come up with something delightful) seem to have solved that problem in advance. They recently announced the availability of jackets that have built-in fans, which do away with the need for air-conditioning. These jackets don’t look very cool, but they’re supposed to keep you cool, so forget fashion and think utilitarian. Nice to see those good folks moving beyond Hello Kitty.

MIT never sleeps. Whenever I drive anywhere near Cambridge, Mass., my body begins to quake with intimidation. This is because of the brains that live and work at a place that always gives me hope for America: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This year, MIT announced it had figured out a way to store the sun’s energy indefinitely in carbon nanotubes (don’t ask), and without losing any of that energy. This is a major breakthrough in solar research, and it involves things such as fulvalene diruthenium and azobenzene, words I love to repeat to The Lovely Marianne while dining at Wendy’s. She’s crazy about me.

On another famous campus. Penn State decided to switch its district-steam system from coal to natural gas this year. They did this because they think natural gas is a healthier fuel. This is going on in Pennsylvania. Isn’t that amazing?

It’s all about the beer. This one didn’t amaze me, but it did amaze the researchers who commissioned the study. They call it the Rebound Effect and it works like this. Let’s say someone wants to do something nice for the planet, while saving money on electricity. She goes to the appliance store and buys a new Energy Star-rated fridge. This beauty is so much more efficient than the old fridge, which the husband moves to the garage to keep the beer cold. They’re now saving energy with the new fridge and wasting energy with the old fridge. The same applies to every other appliance in the house. Surprised? Neither am I.

Our green military. This is another of those common-sense things, but one that often goes unnoticed. Much of the movement toward alternative fuels, and different ways of heating, cooling and insulating buildings (and tents), is coming from our military. They have life-or-death reasons to support this research and to try new technologies. We’ve lost far too many of our brave people to fuel-convoy ambushes and these new technologies are saving lives, and proving themselves under very tough conditions before making their way into our mainstream marketplace. Isn’t our military amazing?

Meanwhile. The U.S. Energy Information Administration decided not to release the results of the 2007 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey, and to halt work on the 2011 edition of the survey. This gave ASHRAE conniptions because the only survey it now has to work with is the one from 2003, which means it will now be designing new buildings based on data that’s nearly 10 years old and quite out of step with current technologies. The reason for this? Funding cuts. And don’t be amazed; there’s bound to be a lot more of this in our future.

Bringing good things to life. This year, General Electric declared that solar will be less expensive than fossil fuels, and I think that’s going to delight the Chinese, who have pretty much taken over the solar industry, which, by the way, we invented right here in America. Want to be amazed and get upset at the same time? Read “Powering the Dream” by Alexis Madrigal. It’s a good thing to do for your business. Never stop learning. Never stop asking questions.

75-1/2 Bedford Street, NYC. To prove, once again, that people perceive value in the oddest things, the house at that address in Greenwich Village sold for $4.3 million last May. And I know Manhattan real estate is expensive, but what makes this house special is that it’s the skinniest house in the city. It’s three stories tall, contains 990 square feet and is just 9-1/2 feet wide. That works out to be $4,343 per square foot. Amazed?

The Big Dunk. Waste not, want not say the Brits in Worcestershire, England, and to prove it this year, the Borough Council voted to allow the heat from its local crematorium to flow into the waters of a nearby public swimming pool. This upset quite a few of the locals, but Simon Thomas, who manages a local funeral home, said of his recently dunked Aunt Mal, “She was a very jolly lady and she wouldn’t have minded helping to heat a swimming pool, especially in these times when we are all trying to save money.” Cheerio, Aunt Mal!

A pet project. In Sunderland, England, an animal shelter is using a heat pump instead of a boiler to keep the place warm, but the amazing part is they’re also collecting the body heat from the animals and adding it into the mix, which includes radiant floor heating. Oh, and they’re also using solar panels to catch the sunlight. How many Btus in a beagle?

An amazing study. This one is from New Zealand. Researchers wanted to find out if the heat collected in the attic space of a 1940s-era home would be significant enough on a cloudy, winter night to provide enough energy to help heat the home. The thought was to blow the air from the attic into the house. You following this? After extensive research, they found that it wasn’t. Isn’t that just the best?

Wales tales. Over in Wales, other researchers learned that today’s teens are using more energy than any previous generation. And these kids have had more education on green issues than any other group. What’s causing the waste?

Mobile phones, gaming devices, TVs, computers, hair straighteners, and, well, just look around your own house. Professor Ian Williams, who ran the study, said the typical teenager now owns more electrical items than an entire household would have owned a generation earlier.

And let’s not forget the beer fridge out in the garage.

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