Writer: Dhakshayini Suresh
The Global Impact of Electricity Overuse
Environmental Issues/Limits of Electricity Production
Global electricity consumption has a major effect on our environment. Most electricity is produced by burning coal - a LOT of coal. Burning of coal is highly polluting and releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Nearly all parts of the electricity system can affect the environment, and the size of these impacts will depend on how and where the electricity is generated and delivered. In general, the environmental effects can include:
Emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, especially when a fuel is burned.
Use of water resources to produce steam, provide cooling, and serve other functions.
Discharges of pollution into water bodies, including thermal pollution (water that is hotter than the original temperature of the water body). Generation of solid waste, which may include hazardous waste; land use for fuel production, power generation, and transmission and distribution lines. Some of these environmental effects can also potentially affect human health, particularly if they result in people being exposed to pollutants in air, water, or soil.
Environmental Impact of Air Conditioners
Air-conditioning presents other problems: As of 2009, nearly 90 percent of American homes had air-conditioners, which accounted for about 6 percent of all the country’s residential energy use. All that air-conditioning releases about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. According to historians and others, the widespread availability of air-conditioning has allowed for more development in the hotter parts of the country — the South and the Southwest — where air-conditioning use is the highest in the country. And once developers could rely on heating and cooling technologies, they often built less energy-efficient homes, which means that you have to use more air-conditioning or heating to get to the temperature you want, creating a somewhat positive feedback loop. Furthermore, some air conditioners may release HFC, a greenhouse gas, that traps heat at a rate of thousand times more than carbon dioxide.
Current Methods of Reducing Environmental Impact of Electricity
Perhaps the most notable way to reduce energy and help the environment is by decreasing power plant emissions. To generate electricity, most power plants burn coal, crude oil or other fossil fuels. Although this method of creating energy is relatively inexpensive, our planet pays the price – carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are just a few of the byproducts that come from traditional methods of power generation. Cutting back on energy consumption reduces the amount of electricity that power plants have to make, subsequently reducing the amount of fossil fuels that are burned each day. Even a small change can make a tremendous difference. In a broader sense, several solutions can help reduce the negative environmental impacts associated with generating electricity, including: Energy efficiency. End-users can meet some of their needs by adopting energy-efficient technologies and practices. In this respect, energy efficiency is a resource that reduces the need to generate electricity.
Clean centralized generation: New and existing power plants can reduce environmental impacts by increasing generation efficiency, installing pollution controls, and leveraging cleaner energy supply resources.
Clean distributed generation: Some distributed generation, such as distributed renewable energy, can help support delivery of clean, reliable power to customers and reduce electricity losses along transmission and distribution lines.
Combined heat and power (CHP): Also known as cogeneration, CHP produces electricity and heat simultaneously from the same fuel source. By using heat that would otherwise be wasted, CHP is both distributed generation and a form of energy efficiency.
New Discovery and why is it significant?
Air conditioning and other space cooling methods account for about 10% of all electricity consumption in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Now, researchers have developed a new material that helps cool the wearer of the fabric while also saving on electricity consumption. The fabric transfers heat, evaporates moisture from the skin via direct contact and helps repel the settling of water on the body. In this manner, the researchers claim that cooling off a person's body is much more efficient than cooling an entire room or building.
What Problems does the New Fabric address?
Various clothing and textiles have been designed to lower our body’s heat, but most have disadvantages, such as poor cooling capacity; large electricity consumption; complex, time-consuming manufacturing; and/or high cost. Yang Si, Bin Ding and colleagues wanted to develop a personal cooling fabric that could efficiently transfer heat away from the body, while also being breathable, water repellent and easy to make. The new fabric is successful in this endeavor.
The Process of Creating This New Fabric
The researchers made the new material by electrospinning a polymer (polyurethane), a water-repelling version of the polymer (fluorinated polyurethane) and a thermally conductive filler (boron nitride nanosheets) into nanofibrous membranes. These membranes repelled water from the outside, but they had large enough pores to allow sweat to evaporate from the skin and air to circulate. The boron nitride nanosheets coated the polymer nanofibers, forming a network that conducted heat from an inside source to the outside air. In tests, the thermal conductivity was higher than that of many other conventional or high-tech fabrics. The membrane could be useful not only for personal cooling, but also for solar energy collection, seawater desalination and thermal management of electronic devices, the researchers say.
Limits of this Cooling Fabric
The primary issue with this technology is that it is relatively new. It claims not to have the downsides of prior cooling fabrics while providing the low temperatures of an air conditioner. There may be other potential risks to using such technology that has not yet been discovered which is why it may not be safe to mass produce and sell. Further research still has to be conducted on the product.
Ongoing Areas of Research in Electricity Usage and Energy Conservation
Creating alternative methods to produce nanofibrous membranes that are considerably cheaper and easier to mass produce to make the cooling fabrics.
Creating desiccant materials that naturally absorb moisture or membranes that let water vapor molecules, but not air, pass through, to ‘naturally’ cool buildings.
Special crystalline structures with pores to store carbon dioxide, water vapor, and hydrogen to make energy efficient air conditioners.
Innovative Method of Removing Carbon Dioxide from Power Plant Exhausts
With air conditioners already adding on to the exponentially growing crisis that is electricity overproduction, any helpful change or technology is urgent. This new cooling fabric is a minor yet imperative solution that will help decrease environmental pollution while also keeping us cool during rising temperatures.
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