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Cool as ice: Air conditioning that doesn't burn up money

In the 19th century, ice was big business. By the 1880s, it contributed as much to American gross domestic product as grain. In The Dynamics of Innovation, MIT Professor James Utterback tracks the rise of the ice industry in the U.S. Northeast - and the remarkable role of ice entrepreneur Frederic Tudor who, using specially constructed ships, exported ice in huge quantities to such distant destinations as Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong. In 1886, the U.S. produced 25 million tons, the country's highest-ever "harvest" of ice from lakes and ponds.

It was a Tudor work force of 100 men and horses that Henry David Thoreau watched from his cabin on Walden Pond - a small part of Tudor's operations. "The sweltering inhabitants of Charleston and New Orleans, of Madras and Calcutta," Thoreau wrote in Walden (published in 1854), "drink at my well." The global trade in ice reflected the price that sweltering people were willing to pay. In Massachusetts, ice sold in summer for $8 (U.S.) a ton; in New Orleans, for $125 a ton.

By the 1880s, however, manufactured ice began to replace natural ice. By the 1890s, more than 200 ice-making plants operated in the southern states - cutting the price of ice to $35 a ton and launching the modern era of refrigeration.

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Canada's ice industry developed on spring-fed Lake Simcoe near the town of Barrie, north of Toronto. The water quality was excellent and railways connected the lake not only to Toronto but to big Midwestern cities of the U.S. In an essay on Canada's ice industry, railway historian Ian Wilson vividly describes the heroic nature of the winter harvest. Huge ice plows cut gigantic grids out of the lake ice. These "rafts" were towed to shore, then sliced into 22-by-32-inch blocks.

Each block of ice had to be cleaned, scored, shaped and planed. Elevators lifted the finished blocks destined for summer storage into huge holdings rooms, each 100 feet long by 30 feet wide and 30 feet high. Ice destined for the winter market went straight into boxcars. A 360-foot platform allowed crews to load nine at a time, then - by advancing the train the length of the platform - another nine. And so on. Mr. Wilson says a full train load of ice was typically loaded every night of the season. The operation required "armies of men and horses."

These nostalgic reflections arise because of a very specific piece of draft legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate on July 20: the Storage Technology Act of 2010. This legislation would extend federal investment tax credits to homeowners and businesses that store energy in the form of ice. One industrial beneficiary of the law would be a Colorado-based company called Ice Energy, which markets thermal cooling systems that hold water in tanks, use cheap night-time electricity to freeze it and then blow the cool air produced by next-day thawing into air conditioning systems.

The question of the day is this: Can people - industrially, commercially and residentially - get cheaper and more efficient air conditioning simply by freezing and thawing water? The quick answer is that, yes, they can. More than 3,000 U.S. companies now use these freeze-and-thaw systems - or "stored energy" systems - to reduce air conditioning costs, among them such companies as Goldman Sachs and Credit Suisse and such institutions as Stanford University in California.

Stanford installed its ice machine system in 1999 and believes that it has saved $16-million in electricity costs in the decade since. Located beneath a parking lot, a four-million-gallon water tank holds the same amount of water as 10 million pounds of ice - or 60 million ice cubes. Using cheap electricity to power five 2,500-pound "chillers," the plant "builds" ice in 360 miles of steel tubing at night, then "burns" it the next day. The university says the system allows it to provide summer cooling with no additional electricity use.

But what about residential use? Can homeowners return to ice for cooling? The website HowStuffWorks.com says - facetiously - that you can produce your own air conditioning, essentially for nothing, provided you install a big enough water tank. After all, every gram of ice that melts releases 80 calories of energy. "All you need," the website advises, "is a big insulated container with some coiled tubes at the bottom and a small pump." The catch is that the "big insulated container" would have to be as big as your house, roughly a 24-foot cube. Add 900 thousand pounds of ice to get started and you're home-free for a whole summer.

For Ice Energy, the "energy storage" company, ice will work best when public utilities use it to determine how - and when - electricity is consumed. By storing surplus electricity in off-peak hours as ice, and holding it in scattered depots located near major distribution points, utilities can deliver "a sustainable new energy source equivalent to hundreds of megawatts of clean, peaking power." Now how cool is that?

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About the Author
Neil Reynolds

Neil Reynolds is an Ottawa writer whose columns on national economic issues appear in Wednesday's and Friday's Globe and Mail. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Vancouver Sun and the Ottawa Citizen. More

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