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Debate Heats Up Over Water-Cooled Buildings

Energy: Cornell University will slash its electric bill by pumping cold water from Cayuga Lake through a heat-exchange system. But resulting warmer water returns to the lake, which opponents fear will do harm.


After obtaining 17 permits from local and state agencies, the project was scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency, which had placed the lake's south end on a list of "impaired water bodies" in 1998. The lake, Cornell argues, falls into a special "need more data" category not covered by federal bans on discharges.

The EPA, hoping to jump-start a national policy to attack non-point-source pollution, asked if Cornell would volunteer to serve as a model to test the concept of "offsets"--reducing pollutants from other, diffuse sources in exchange for its pumping project.

Cornell said no. "We definitely didn't want to do something that's quite controversial nationwide and had never been done before," Joyce said. Instead, the school is offering its expertise in educating the public about ways to cut back on polluting the watershed.

Horne thinks Cornell would mute criticism by agreeing to an "offset."

"This is one of the best universities in the world, and it's up to them I think to go the step further," he said. "This is the normal pollutant trading you would think an advanced society would be doing by now."

Big Initial Investment

Another critic, recording engineer Rich DePaolo, thinks the project has drawn so much attention because it will set a precedent for not only "whether this type of technology is implemented elsewhere but how impaired water bodies are managed throughout the country."

So-called non-contact cooling has been widely used in industry for decades but has yet to catch on as an air-conditioning alternative.

A similar system operates in Stockholm, Sweden, drawing water from 60 feet down in the Baltic Sea, and two more are in the works on Lake Ontario--in Rochester, N.Y., and Toronto, Canada. An ocean-water experimentation lab in Hawaii that draws water from 2,200 feet also uses some of the excess energy to air-condition several buildings.

A big up-front investment, despite the promise of low operating costs, often proves a big turnoff, said Joe Van Ryzin of Makai Ocean Engineering in Hawaii, which designed the Cornell pipeline. But he thinks it's a technology that will prove popular eventually.

"If Cornell were Wall Street investors, they probably would have never built it," he said. "However, they're more world and environmentally conscious than Wall Street, and they have the luxury of being able to choose the high road and do the glorious thing.

"If a city is at a location where it can do that, it really is irresponsible not to."

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