Myth of cooling towers is symptomatic of global warming information shortage


15 February 2007

More than two-thirds of people in the UK believe, wrongly, that smoke or harmful emissions emerge from cooling towers, feeding carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change, while only one person in 100 has a good understanding of what the towers are really used for, according to a Royal Society of Chemistry survey.

The myth of cooling towers belching smoke - whereas in reality they issue harmless water vapour - is evidence that the public needs fuller and more accurate information about the science behind global warming, says RSC chief executive Dr Richard Pike.

"No misconceptions or misinformation concerning energy and global warming must be allowed, because they will distract from the main battle, which is to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions and to capture and store carbon dioxide, permanently, where it can do no harm.

"That undertaking will be a massive task, dwarfing placing a man on the moon. But unlike the moon landing this is a challenge in which everybody must play a vital part, from children to grandparents, all of whom deserve to receive the right messages on a matter of unparalleled importance to the world."

The RSC's Dr Helen Rowland quizzes a member of the public about cooling towers

The RSC's Dr Helen Rowland (left) quizzes a member of the public about cooling towers

The RSC survey in London's Piccadilly Circus came two weeks after the organisation highlighted the inadequate amount of information on global warming in British school science text books, which led to the education minister stepping in to ensure the vacuum was filled.

As a result of the government's move, climate change will be taught as part of the geography curriculum but the RSC has promoted the need for more additional detail to be covered in science lessons.

Dr Pike is convinced that there must be a more urgent and more rigorous approach to getting the right information to the public and he believes information that leads people to misconstrue the function of cooling towers is symptomatic of a wider educational malaise.   

"Whichever energy sources the UK employs in future, such as nuclear, concentrated solar power (CSP), bio-fuels, geothermal techniques or fossil fuels - with carbon capture and storage - cooling plants will be involved as an essential part of power generation so we have to live with them and accept that they are not in themselves contributing to climate change," added Dr Pike. "These all provide essentially carbon-free electricity, although we all recognise there are other issues that need to be resolved.

"In addition, of course, we must develop renewable energy sources that do not involve high temperature generation of power such as solar cells, wind, tidal, wave, and hydro. Cooling towers do not play a part in the case of these facilities."

Images of cooling towers are frequently exploited publicly to suggest, wrongly, that they play a part in global warming. The towers are used to provide a source of cold water that, through heat exchangers, condenses steam after it has been heated up and passed through turbines used to generate electricity.

The RSC was spurred to its survey by a national advertisement by the Energy Saving Trust which depicted a group of cooling towers, complemented by copy saying 'Almost half the UK's carbon dioxide emissions which cause climate change are actually down to us.'

Vox pop

Dr Richard Pike with youngster Lewys York, who could explain the function of cooling towers

The offending Energy Saving Trust advert accurately pointed out that damage is being done by individuals, citing televisions being left on standby, or by short car journeys being made by millions of people. "But the emphasis on the cooling towers image in the advert was very misleading," said Dr Pike. 

"We do not challenge those points of course and it is quite right to stress how we all - at home or in the workplace - can change our habits to help the planet. However, we must gets the facts right.

"Only one person we spoke to was able to summarise the function of a cooling tower and that was a little boy visiting the capital from York. If we could raise people's awareness even fractionally towards his level of understanding we will have achieved something special and useful for the country," he added.

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