Monday, February 26, 2007

Broad Air Conditioning: Environmental China

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.


Anonymous said...

OK I read the article on Broad also. I was looking for a place to buy a residential unit when I found your blog. Have you come across any sources?

Maureen Rogers said...

Sorry - they don't appear to have residential units (at least not in the U.S., at least not yet). Like you, I couldn't find any sources.

Anonymous said...

I also read the article in the Atlantic and was looking for the copany web site when I came across your article. Good luck in your endeavors.

Anonymous said...

How can I invest in Broad Air?
Stock Symbol?
Mutual Fund Symbol?
Website link?


Kelvin said...

I found some residential units made by Yazaki in Japan. I sent an email to the USA branch a few minutes ago. As I type this I can't figure out where I saw the info on the Yazaki site.

I only found relatively small units on another site (5 ton unit due 1Q'08):

It seems like this should cool a 2,000 sq ft home? Disclaimer: I'm an engineer, not an HVAC guy!

Anonymous said...

I really do not understand what the fuss about Broad is all about!
Absorption HVAC has existed for decades now, so what exactly is new here? The news will be when some manufacturer makes a cost break-thru into affordable 5-tons residential units. If you'd like to make a "green" statement, the technology is here since long ago, be it Absorption gas-fired, Solar powered, Geothermal, etc. The catch is none of this will payback in your lifetime!!!
What can and does pay is small Hydroelectric turbines which generate "free" electricity from naturally running water stream, then use this electricity for lighting, air conditioning, cooking, hot water, etc., then you can say you're truly green AND economically viable; which is the only way to be green because when you just burn money you're not green at all!!
PS: I'm a US citizen working in Cairo, Egypt, where we do have Gas-fired HVAC & district cooling for several years now without the fuss of Broad's...Nothing is new!! Thank you.
Hal Olama

Anonymous said...

The Yazaki absorber looks like a good product. From what I can find on the internet. It only takes 2 amps to run a solar 5 ton cooling absorber. You'll need an aditional pump to run the chilled water, which would be minimal. If you buy an heating / cooling absorber, the cost would go up significantly. The cooling tower is exspensive to buy and to use. It seems like the financial return would take forever. However you could have solar cooling and then perhaps if you have a swimming pool then it would eliminate the cooling tower. Unfortunately the 80 gpm needed for the cooling tower is alot of volume to match, it depends on the delta P of the water. If I could get the engineering fine tuned. I think I could get the over all running costs for heating and cooling down to 10 amps total and that is a 30% reduction in running costs. The problem is I cannot find a decent distributer that know what he's talking about. I live on the west coast and cannot locate anyone for Yazaki localy.

Solar Panels Plus
Yazaki Power systems

Anonymous said...

We are involved with a double effect Broad chiller that has serious problems that seem to be manufacture issues. I was wondering if anyone has had similar experience?

jj said...

Yup I have came across this news article on the newsstand too. I believe the point of non-electric, absorption chiller is that it makes better use of the primary state of energy. What ever electricity that comes through our electrical outlet is generated from fossil fuel based energy source. My studies in the environmental science has generalized a principle that distributed energy consumption mode is most energy efficient, because you are more flexible and you cut down the transmission loss. So you are really considering the whole picture. Just by looking at a single unit doesn't make up as much as a difference, but on a national level.

Back to the topic of using the primary energy, electricity is generated with only 20% efficiency, so all that waste heat is emitted into our atmosphere. In the case of absorption chillers it uses primary energy and converts to cooling at a much higher efficiency simply because there are less steps of energy conversion, which means less loss. That's just my 2 cents.

staten island air duct cleaning said...

I read this article on Broad & think jj said right, I also agree with his views here.

hvac washington dc said...

Great comments. I enjoyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

Well the one we have doesn't work very well at all. It's to the point we don't dare to turn it off, in fear it might not work again. Or worse yet blow up on the process!

Anonymous said...

Just surveyed Broad Packaged Chiller Plant that ran on exhaust gas from a microturbine in Manhattan. A total disaster. It appears the cooling tower part of the package is undersized for the chiller and may have contributed to its early demise. The exhaust gas heat medium is problematic since it is a compressible fluid and turbulent. Steady state is hard to maintain so the unit never made capacity. The materials are terrible. The machine is fairly new and is showing advanced corrosion inside and out.