The other day, in a discussion on global warming, someone mentioned that China - for all its deserved reputation for filthy brown air and environmental laxity - had a jump on the States when it came to investment in green technology. I filed this comment away, but out it popped when I read James Fallows' fascinating article on the founder of Broad Air Conditioning in the March Atlantic Monthly ("Mr. Zhang Builds His Dream House").
The article profiled Zhang Yue, Broad's Founder and CEO - in all his entrepreneurial, exuberantly capitalist glory. Sure, there's an element of make-fun in the article: the Broad compound includes life-sized bronze statues of Zhang's heroes, including James Watt, the Wright Brothers, Rachel Carson, Mahatma Gandhi, Confucius, Socrates, and Jack Welch. (Jack always manages to land himself in pretty good company, doesn't he?) Not to mention a gold-covered pyramid. And then there's the weird - and weirdly Maoist - employee training and ongoing communal activities (accordion orchestras, anyone?).
But there's no overlooking what Mr. Zhang is doing right, and that's all about the environmental consciousness of his efforts - the Broad air conditioners, which are non-electric absorption chillers that produce cold from hot using natural gas rather than electric energy and freon. As their web site states, this "seems like magic to many, but the science of absorption is like the blood running through BROAD’s veins."
The site is quite instructive about their process:
[With Broad chillers] chilled water is produced directly by burning fuel, harnessing the sun or recycling waste energy streams through a repeatable chemical process called the absorption cycle. This single energy conversion becomes important when comparing with electric chiller performance which requires a five fold process of energy conversion. Electric chillers require fossil fuel conversion into heat, heat into mechanical energy, mechanical into power, power into mechanical energy and finally mechanical energy into chilled water. The second law of thermodynamics teaches us that there is some loss in every energy conversion which results in energy waste. Thus, electric chillers consume much primary energy and create the need for a large electric grid to serve only a few hours of peak demand each year. BROAD non-electric chillers, on the other hand, burn clean fossil fuels, can recycle any waste heat above 90 oC or use the sun’s rays and dramatically reduce the need to invest in generating, transmitting and distributing peak electric energy.
Broad products don't come cheap - they're "double and even triple the cost of competitor's chillers." But they promise ROI through energy savings - so far, they claim to have saved their customers 4 million tons of oil - and lower cost to install and run. Among the benefits of their approach: during the non-heating season, natural gas is often just burnt off. With Broad products, it's utilized at off-peak prices.
Broad is also all about sustainable development, environmental friendliness, and the importance of being green. Since we hear so much about how costly and economically devastating it is to be environmentally conscious - it's one of the major pillars of the "there's no such thing as global warming, and even if there were we can't afford to do anything about it" argument - it's interesting to hear about a successful business with a different approach to a product that in its most common state is a major user of fossil-fuel powered electricity - with Broad, CO2 emissions and pollution are reduced.
OK. I can't resist. In addition to plentiful information on their technology and philosophy, in addition to all the "firsts" and "bests" that Broad brags about, their web site also includes enough "house of weird" stuff to keep us Western snobs amused. Much of the goofy stuff is contained in the pictures and descriptions of the hotels in the Broad complex (where, by the way, all of the wooden fixtures and flooring are created from recycled packing crates). The hotels seem to be inhabited exclusively by Chinese school girls, in stilted poses. One is pictured sitting on a bare wooden floor reading a book, another appears to be picking her teeth in the bathroom mirror. Those who like to look down their condescending and snotty noses at the mysterious East will be amused by the wacky translation that accompanies a picture of the Spanish-themed hotel:
Childish mini three-table set, that clumsy bookcase and the ox skull have made up the Spanish characters.
But we laugh, of course, at our own economic peril.
If we don't figure out how to create more environmentally friendly products and a greener way of living, someone else is going to do it for us. It looks as if Broad has gotten something of a broad jump on us here.