Thursday, October 23, 2014

House and energy, a conference

I just returned from Bohemian Budweis – just to be sure, my dear American readers, it's the town that gave the name to the beer and if someone tries to convince you about a different story about the origin of the name, you're being had! ;-)

The town is nice, a smaller Pilsen of a sort, a town with some extra traces of the rural Czech aristocracy. Unlike the cities in Northern Bohemia which used to belong to the Sudetenland, there is no obvious "traumatic feeling" of a post-war decline associated with the depopulation and repopulation.

Linguistically, Southern Bohemia was defined as the "healthy (rural) core" of the Czech nation so the people over there define what the Czech language without any accents or dialects looks like. They have the credentials to make fun of the accents and dialects of everyone else, and of course, they did exploit this capital in some friendly conversations with your humble Pilsner correspondent. ;-)

More importantly, the topic was "House and Energy". I gave an introductory talk about the climate debate and attended for other talks. The organizers did a very nice job, the 50 adults and 50 high school students (at the local secondary school of civil engineering that hosted the event) cordially and meaningfully interacted. A banquet. Unfortunately, so many people talked to me that I ate 1/2 of what I had wanted LOL.

I think that the morning talks about the climate debate were a decoration, a cherry on a pie that the experts and students in civil engineering may ignore because it's not their specialization. But they were immensely (?) interested in it.

A senior associate professor who gave the first talk may have been described as an experienced ecologist or biologist although he would call himself a "physicist of systems". He's traveled to numerous continents to help them with cultivation of the landscape, creation of ponds, reforestation etc. His talk ultimately focused on the CO2 science (that he considered a wrong focal point of the people's interest) and even though I was warned that he would be pretty green, I actually didn't agree with that description.

He stressed the ability of the forests etc. to maintain and regulate a hospitable microclimate – and showed in how many CO2-unrelated and local ways the people are influencing their environment. I totally agreed with that and because my talk was much more physics-oriented, it was good that he focused on the biological issues.

I presented the problem of the climate change science in the usual "renormalization group" perspective – described how the temperature changes at time scales from hours to billions of years, what the graphs look like, and what mechanisms are known or partly known to explain these oscillations. (Spinning of the Earth, orbital motion, cosmoclimatology with the Milky Way's spiral arms, continental drift, glaciation cycle, the direction of the causal relationship there, greenhouse effect, water as the dominant greenhouse gas, concentrations of CO2 now and in the history, CO2 and plants, CO2 and animals, volcanos, PDO, El Niños, dynamics of sea ice since 1979, sea levels: be sure that it's not trivial to cover all these topics in a comprehensive way within 35 or 40 minutes LOL.)

Ladislav Jakl, an aide to ex-president Václav Klaus, was formally giving the other part of our talk. But of course the "genre" couldn't have been more different. I agreed with everything he said, however. He poetically discussed what the intelligent extraterrestrial aliens would find bizarre about our civilization. It's the climate hysteria... which is based on 5 increasingly controversial beliefs as well as on fear and the feeling of guilt. A nice talk – albeit not one with a PowerPoint file and not a data-driven one.

The fourth talk was one by an energy regulator, in fact, a close colleague of the Czech top nuclear watchdog Ms Dana Drábová. He even claimed that they actually share the talk, or most of it. And indeed, there was quite some overlap with a talk by Drábová I once attended. He talked about how much energy we need, what kinds of mix are realistic in the medium term future, and how the grid is affected by irregularities caused e.g. by the German pinwheels. However, Drábová went much deeper into her knowledge about the nuclear technology and safety – this guy said that a nuclear power plant is just another steam engine with the uranium heating the water up (which is true and important, but that was it) – so much of the "wow" effect I experienced after Drábová's talk was absent. Nevertheless, he was still very sensible.

And the last talk I saw was exactly the type of a talk that I had expected (and worried) to be the "core" of this conference. A chap from the Czech Technical University was promoting the passive houses, a school of cheap and ugly architecture that the European Union wants to codify and justify by its obsession with energy efficiency.

The audience liked my talk for many reasons, and probably some other talks, and I was also told that it was very helpful for the high school students to see people from related disciplines, like me and the ecology professor, who may peacefully discuss and interact. Of course, it was rather easy for us to agree about things because we just mostly agreed. So if he corrected me or I corrected him etc., it was a detail. For example, he would say that the concentration of water vapor was several orders of magnitude higher than the concentration of CO2, so it's a demagogy to treat them as equal or use different units for them. In that case, I was "more green" than himself and pointed out that the concentration of CO2 is smaller by several orders of magnitude than water but the "global warming potential" (ability to cause the greenhouse effect) of one CO2 molecule is substantially greater than for an H2O molecule, so the overall greenhouse effect caused by H2O exceeds that of CO2 just by one order of magnitude, not several orders of magnitude. There was also a moment in which I may have seemed "less green, more blue" – about the question whether the climate change may strengthen things like torrential rains. At the end, of course that I agreed that some changes that may have been taking place did change the structure of the torrential rains in Czechia but those changes were not caused by CO2 because of its uniform profile (and dependence of meteorological effects like torrential rains on gradients).

With others, we had interesting chats about how the EU is promoting insane behavior etc., you may imagine.

But you surely want to hear about some real controversy. Well, I participated in two. While I had interesting post-talk debates about the negative feedbacks and the ability of living and inanimate physical systems to regulate themselves, and why many of those "seemingly life-like things" don't really require any true complexities of life, there was one fiery exchange.

A guy much younger than me came to me, praised my talk in a visibly weaker way than others, and demanded that I would retract that CO2 was an invisible, colorless, odorless, *harmless* gas. So of course, I would tell him that I wouldn't retract; it was harmless, indeed. What we mean is that at concentrations lower than 10,000 ppm (25 times the current concentrations outside), it has no negative health impact on humans. Even in many cases when concentrations above 10,000 ppm are said to be unpleasant for humans, the actual source of dizziness is the shortage of oxygen, not the excess of CO2. And only concentrations around 50,000 ppm (5% of the volume) start to be toxic for almost all humans.

He didn't want to listen to any facts or learn anything. So he would repeat his story. CO2 must be harmful because it's emitted by cars! I told him that if something is emitted by cars, it doesn't mean that it's toxic. He said that it has to be toxic because it's observed by the smog alarm stations etc. So I explained to him that CO2 is of course not monitored by these stations, for example, my favorite Windows Phone app traces SO2, NO2, CO, O3, and PM10, and note that CO isn't the same thing as CO2 (CO is badly toxic, thanks to Bill Z. for catching the typo; CO2 spread all over the atmosphere rather quickly and its concentration in outer spaces is always above 300 ppm but below 1,000 ppm – the concentration is qualitatively the same everywhere, so it doesn't make sense to measure it as a pollutant), but it was hopeless to talk to him, so the only thing he could tell me that I was a good demagogue and I should be exposed to CO2. Of course I assured him that I am ready to breath air with 10,000 ppm of CO2 for hours as long as there will be enough (at least 20%) oxygen in it. He also told me that it's crazy to talk about CO2 and O2 separately – if the oxygen isn't directly negatively connected with CO2, then we must have raised the overall atmospheric pressure by increasing the CO2 concentration. I told him it was in principle indeed the case – there's no reason why the total pressure should be constant – except that the atmospheric pressure is oscillating by vastly higher deviations than the whole (tiny) contribution by all of CO2, so the answer to the question is unmeasurable (hidden in the noise).

Those folks can't ever absorb any of these basic facts because the basic scientific insight that CO2 is a harmless gas analogous to water vapor is a blasphemy from their viewpoint and they believe that their life would be worth nothing if this blasphemy were tolerated. Anti-CO2 bigots are *everywhere* and wherever you find them, they are pretty much equally dishonest and/or uneducated. But maybe he was *just* uneducated, and when he learns some basic materials about the "health and CO2", he will just understand that he was just wrong. I doubt it, however.

The other source of "real controversy" resulted from the last talk by the chap from the Czech Technical University. He started by addressing the previous talks – and his being a skewed alarmist was clear from the very first sentences. He would say some dismissive comments about Ladislav Jakl's talk. (I've heard about two engineers who refused to attend the conference because of Jakl.) Concerning my talk, he said that it's a fallacy to say that even the warming by 2.5 °C would be OK. For them, it would be a big deal because people would have to pay more for air-conditioning.

I couldn't leave this propagandistic provocation without an answer. So I turned my head and asked all the folks from civil engineering – what are the total expenses that Czechia annually pays for heating vs air-conditioning. Now, I don't know the exact numbers but it's totally obvious that the heating safely beats the air-conditioning. The energy regulator guy would tell me that the air-conditioning became a detectable fraction of the heating fees only recently. Indeed, air-conditioning is a luxury that Czechs wouldn't know at all just a few decades ago.

Obviously, if there were a warming by 2.5 °C, it would lower the total fee for "temperature corrections" in the buildings. The average annual temperature in Czechia (averaged over territory) is 7 °C (the same in Pilsen) and because people like something like 22 °C, they have to heat the rooms up by 15 °C in average, and the heating clearly beats the air-conditioning. Assuming that the cooling by one degree costs the same as heating by one degree, which is not extremely far from the reality, it's trivial to see that the global temperatures would have to increase by 15 °C for the total "temperature regulation" in rooms to start increase again and be dominated by air-conditioning. If the annual mean temperature were 15 °C higher than today, the total fees for "temperature regulation" would probably be minimized. All these suggestions that the warming by one or two degrees will make a negative impact (or even a significant negative impact) on the economy of the buildings are self-evidently absurd. I mentioned that Ladislav Jakl also remarked that one should do proper cost-and-benefits analysis that looks both at costs and benefits of a higher (or lower) temperature. No one is doing that and people who are corrupt are doing everything they can to prevent any real research or debate on these matters.

And be sure that this guy was corrupt. His semi-commercial branch of the Czech Technical University clearly lives out of designing houses that are meant to follow this "super energy efficient" mantra pushed by some EU bureaucrats. He used the amazingly arrogant term "quality houses" for houses of this kind and he concluded that "quality houses" have to be structureless cubes or sets of a small number of cubes without balconies and without the ability to open the windows. Give me a break. Such houses aren't called "quality houses"; they are called "crappy piles of ugly šit". He has shown some ugly pictures similar to those in the 2010 blogpost about the EU passive houses.

Our ancestors would go through the gothic, renaissance, baroque, and other periods, and there would be something clever, stylish, or aesthetic about each of them. Finally, we reached an era in which some people would "realize" that a "quality house" is just an ugly cube. The possibility that the buyers of the house could actually care about the aesthetic aspect is something that must be considered impossible – or a heresy. Some people may simply afford windows that may be opened, balconies, or other non-flat features on the houses. Portals, column, graffiti, many other things. They may afford to increase the heating bills by a few percent – or take some extra clothes if needed.

Amarouny [Amarowns], the dominant food in 2484 AD. People will have finally found the optimum format of food that contains everything you need – a cube of jelly.

But I am simply ashamed of this part of our age. Our ancestors were much poorer than we are. Even in the energy production, they had many fewer options. But none of them would build ugly houses that look like structureless windowsless cubes. Even poor rural folks knew better. But in the cities, they left lots of valuable buildings that assure the inhabitants of the cities that they're not savages. Why should we, the people in the 21st century, act as these super-poor folks who can't afford any luxury and who won't leave anything pretty to our descendants?

Moreover, these designers are clearly doing a bad job even if we assume that their basic task of maximally lowering the energy consumption is legitimate. There are undoubtedly many ways to achieve the same saving that nevertheless look better. After all, it's the ball and not a box that minimizes the surface for a fixed volume, and a box is as far from this optimal shape (ball) as many prettier and more complex shapes! But those folks just don't want to work hard. They prefer government subsidies or government regulations that force people to buy these crappy boxes.

His and his group's dependence on the government subsidies and regulation was self-evident at many places of the talk. For example, he would repeatedly emphasize that *especially* in the case of the public buildings funded by the taxpayer money, it's imperative that the building must satisfy the most stringent criteria for energy efficiency. Why did he single out the taxpayer-funded buildings?

Of course, the actual reason is that it is the most important consumer. Public officials don't give a damn if they buy ugly crap which is why they often buy this crap, indeed. Private buyers who want something for their money hesitate. Could there be any other justification of the difference between private buyers and public buyers?

The answer is No. When the government is buying or constructing a building, it is doing the same thing as the private investor! Such a building is evaluated according to several criteria and the mix of these criteria is more or less the same for the private investors and for the government. In particular, the aesthetic considerations should surely play quite some role in both cases!

In fact, most of the "truly nice buildings" that our ancestors have left for our and future generations may be described as government-funded buildings. It's just completely wrong to suggest that the government should selectively build ugly buildings. The government should try to save the money. But to save the money by reducing the aesthetic value of the buildings that the citizens have to visit most often (and that will be most visible to the descendants as well) is simply a totally wrong place to look for such savings.

The contemporary architectonic style(s) are different and more diverse than those in the baroque or other periods. But none of the new buildings I really like looks anything like the "passive" houses these people are selling. The Ehrlich Palace on the picture above is a favorite building erected in recent two years.

When a new building is added to the context of some older ones, people often justify it by saying something like "it fits there" which means "it doesn't quite cripple the overall appearance of the historical buildings and their vicinity". But if you think about these "compliments", they implicitly tell you that the people realize that the older buildings are actually more aesthetic than the new ones.

I would say that the Ehrlich Palace (by Bořek Šípek) is different. It's in the center of Pilsen and there are parks, a rather expensive 100-year-old Hotel Continental, The Museum of Western Bohemia, and other things over there. The atmosphere is rather intense and luxurious, as it is at some places in Downtown Boston or any other major cities. And the extra thing is that the Ehrlich Palace seems to amplify and not weaken the feeling. If the building is there in 100 years, people in 2114 may think that the year 2014 was perhaps as good and prosperous as the year 1895 when Hotel Continental was built.

You may dislike the Ehrlich Palace. I just needed an example. You may find a better example for yourself. My more general point is that we shouldn't be building just some crappy simple buildings that will make our generation look like a gang of crappy poor savages who had to almost completely deteriorate relatively to the generation of 1895 AD in the eyes of the people in 2114 AD.

Someone would tell me that if I am offered several energy-efficient houses like that, I may find one or two that looks acceptable. I agree. Some of them look better than others and some of them may surpass a "threshold of acceptability" as a result. But if I were offered many more houses – if the options weren't censored by these ideological criteria – I would almost certainly pick a building that looks totally different than this "passive house" architecture. And I am actually convinced that most people would pick something completely different, too. But these people with common sense and the sense of beauty (among many other senses that are completely absent among the CO2-hysteria and energy-efficient zealots and their hired guns) are being intimidated and bullied in this troubled world.


  1. Cubes are so inefficient.
    Buildings should be based on bubbles - maximum volume for minimum surface area. This is also true when bubbles are in clusters. So tell your cubist he is soo oo wrong.

  2. Actually if you look at the Google images that come up when searching for 'cubist building', some look quite nifty and artistic, but most of them are probably not what that chap had in mind. :)

  3. Some people are stuck forever in cubism.

  4. There is a reason for the expression "thinking out of the box".

  5. All you have, Luboš, is a vast body of empirical evidence. Klimate Kaos has 100-year extrapolations! You talk about buying tomorrow's breakfast as the competition promises pre-paid eternal life.

    Socialism is mission creep. Social advocacy is monkey traps. When we end the evil IQ of science we will again be rewarded with Eden - a Shire for all the hobbits to lazily enjoy as all armpits are miraculously flowery. One need only survive a brief Dark Ages while debts are paid.

  6. One reason there aren't more spheres is that they really aren't that efficient. As the slope flattens out, more of the space underneath becomes unusable because the ceiling is too low. The result is that the total floor space is lower for a given ground footprint. That means other people have to travel farther to get to the next building. Also the load on the center of the building is greater than on the edges, thus making the construction more complex or else the design wastes strength where it is not needed.


  8. LOL, George, you are very confused. Cubist architecture is certainly something very different from a style that produces "boxes". The cubist buildings are creative and highly structured (and use angles different from 90 degrees everywhere), see e.g.

  9. A colleague of mine called the passive houses "Ritter Sport" houses (we both agree that they are ugly):

    Ritter Sport chocolate is advertised to be

    "quadratisch, praktisch und gut" LOL ;-P

    Or there might be a permutation of these adjectives, I dont remember. The slogan is invariant under cyclic permutation of the adjectives anyway ... ;-)

  10. Nice, Dilaton! We have these in supermarkets, too, but sadly, I've never seen a commercial about it and maybe I have never bought this one. But the chocolate must be good. After all, it's not the only rectangular chocolate. There are not too many shapes of chocolate. Mozart Kugeln have the other most obvious shape. ;-)

  11. "quality houses" have to be structureless cubes or sets of a small number of cubes without balconies and without the ability to open the windows. Give me a break. Such houses aren't called "quality houses"; they are called "crappy piles of ugly šit".

    Or, more politely, cells.

  12. Dear Lubos
    You could have reminded the obnoxious guy that at the very moment he was talking to you, his own lungs were periodically containing 40 000 ppm of CO2, e.g 100 times the atmospheric content yet he was obviously not dropping dead. If he is aware that breathing is a quite necessary activity for his sustained survival that is.

  13. A very good point, Tom! It's probably no coincidence that the 40,000 ppm we breath out are below - but close to - the barrier when the CO2 excess starts to be unpleasant.

    When one breathes is, the conditions in the lungs are exactly at those 40,000 ppm - and we can survive for that one-half of the breathing cycle with that - and Nature probably guaranteed that we could get to slightly worse conditions than the "normal breath-out phase", too. ;-)

  14. Actually you covered the real problem in your discussion with your point about oxygen. Lack of O2 is something much more unpleasant than CO2 concentration. The O2 partial pressure at 3000 m is about 75% of the seal level and as everybody who already did some activity like skiing or climbing at 3 000 m knows, you start to have some damn difficulties with breathing there.
    And it is almost irrelevant how much CO2 you have there.
    When you hold your breath, you can keep those 40 000 ppm CO2 in your lungs for 3 minutes without problem and what will make you suffer will be your brain screaming "Fuk CO2 but give me some oxygen !".
    And it is really an interesting idea you had about the why of the 40 000 ppm CO2. If you are Mother Nature, it would make big sense to increase this ratio as close as possible to the threshold where some specifically CO2 related problems kick in.
    It would actually also make sense to increase this threshold as far as it goes too because it is your interest to oxydate as much as you can with a single breath - this would increase your power.
    It might be possible that drugs like EPO have precisely a similar consequence.
    And as Mother Nature is much more intelligent than we are and has billions of years to play with us, I believe that she really did something like that.

  15. These observations of yours make very good sense, Tom!