electricity bill assistance program

Last summer, Austin created an electricity bill assistance program to deal with exceptionally high power bills related to extreme temperatures.

The city Web site has tips for keeping cool during the summer, reminding citizens that it can be helpful to submerge body parts in buckets of water to prevent overheating.

When I moved here, an Austinite friend of mine warned me not to judge the city until about October, when the weather can safely be considered tolerable. I’ve still spent a good part of the past few weeks wrapped in blankets and howling about the cold to anyone who will listen.

Droughts and floods, hot and cold, air conditioners and heaters working in the same day: Weather can get challenging in Austin and in many other places in the world. As someone who studies climate, I am usually very careful to distinguish between weather and climate. Weather deals with short-term fluctuations, while climate is a more fundamental characteristic — often more stable and predictable.

Spring turning to summer is not an indicator of climate change, and neither is our inability to accurately predict daily weather patterns more than a few weeks ahead indicative of an inability to recognize a changing climate. That said, extreme weather represents an important chance to relate weather and climate change.

Talking about a potential 5-degree (Fahrenheit) increase in average global temperature from anthropogenic climate change might not sound that bad. Temperatures fluctuate by more than that on a daily — even hourly — basis. Many of the risks of climate change lie in the altered system characteristics that an increased average temperature fosters: changing habitats, changing precipitation patterns, rising sea levels and the like.

Often, projections suggest that extremes will be exacerbated. Dry areas will likely get drier, wet areas wetter, hot areas hotter — and hot days hotter.

Adding 5 degrees to the temperature on days of extreme heat can be dangerous to living and engineered systems. The European heat wave of 2003 notoriously killed tens of thousands of people as a result of extreme temperatures, notably from hyperthermia and fires.

Though humans, animals and plants are often surprisingly resilient in the face of stresses, single extreme events can prove deadly. We may be able to survive for weeks without food, but a few hours above a temperature threshold will kill us. Crops subjected to a week or two of above normal temperatures can die, and warm waters can destroy fish hatcheries. Much as small concentrations of greenhouse gases can create a large temperature effect, a small amount of exposure to extreme conditions can have disproportionate impacts on well-being.

Extreme temperatures also hurt our ability to protect ourselves. Across the world, large power plants have either shut down or come very close to shutting down because cooling water was not cool enough during times of extreme heat. This is particularly problematic because power for air conditioning and other services is especially needed during extreme temperature events.

Even when industrial cooling is not a problem, extreme temperatures can create demand for electricity that exceeds our ability to provide it, leading to blackouts that further exacerbate the problem.

Our development patterns can make us more vulnerable to extreme conditions. The world is becoming more urban, and the trend is expected to continue. For many characteristics, urbanization actually reduces human pressures on the environment by consolidating our footprint.

If not carefully planned, however, urbanization can magnify the risk posed by extreme-heat events. The urban heat island phenomenon, born of the tendency of buildings and paved surfaces to trap heat, is well documented. Many building materials are effective thermal masses, retaining more heat than undeveloped regions, and waste heat from industry and other processes can also be a factor in some areas. Green space and attentiveness to the heat reflectivity of roofs and paved surfaces can lessen the problem, but they must be actively incorporated.

Climate change poses major risks to habitats, human settlements and human activities, and it is a direct health threat in the case of extreme events. We may joke during cold periods that a 5-degree boost to temperatures would make life a lot easier, but it’s sobering to realize that the same 5-degree boost might occur when we’re sitting with our feet in buckets of water during a summer power outage. Austin is no stranger to extreme weather, and we may soon have a lot more company as other cities learn what extreme heat means.

Future students will most likely not experience the tin-shed classrooms that comprise part of UT’s nationally recognized top-10-ranked engineering school.

Plans to demolish the Academic and Computer Science Annexes – temporary classrooms students call “Shack 1” and “Shack 2” respectively – passed unanimously in committee at the Board of Regents meeting Thursday morning in Dallas.

The full Board will vote on the demolition, part of the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Strategic 13-year Master Plan, during today’s board meeting.

If approved, the $290 million construction project will start in 2011 and be completed by 2015.

Other engineering buildings, including the Engineering-Science Building, Service Building and W.R. Woolrich Labs, could also be raised as part of the plan. If the proposal passes, any money used to finance the project will have to come from private donors and other forms of state and system funding.

Having the plan approved by the Regents is the first step in a long process. If passed, the plan will be added to the UT System Capital Improvement Program, a six-year forecast of all major projects adopted by the System.

Engineering Dean Gregory Fenves said the plan will introduce new facilities while increasing the total square footage of the school by almost 38 percent. Fenves said the current buildings place UT’s engineering school at a competitive disadvantage in comparison to other schools.

“We are not in the ball game, and we risk falling further behind,” Fenves said.

The most imminent change in the plan will be the construction of the Engineering Education and Research Building, which will stand in the place of the current Engineering-Science Building.

According to the plan drafted by the Philadelphia-based Ballinger Architects, the Chemical and Petroleum Engineering Building, the Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall and the Engineering Teaching Center II will all see minor to substantial modifications. Burdine Hall will be extensively modified in a joint effort by the Colleges of Engineering, Natural Science and Pharmacy.

Fenves said two of the plan’s focuses are learning and project-based teaching. While the traditional engineering departments will be maintained, the new buildings will each boast interdisciplinary research areas, which will allow collaboration between different departments and majors to occur in a common space. He also said the new facilities will accommodate room for student projects and for various state and national competitions.

The project will push the Cockrell School to a top-five ranking, attract new faculty and graduate students and bring in almost $1 million of additional grant money per year, Fenves said.

Fenves presented the plan to the Board’s Academic Affairs Committee, which is made up of Regents Janiece Longoria, Paul Foster, Colleen McHugh and Robert Stillwell.

“I don’t think anyone at the table can dispute the importance of engineering to the future of this state and to the University of Texas,” committee chairwoman Longoria said. “It appears to me that we at the Cockrell School of Engineering are very tall on talent but short on infrastructure, so I really appreciate the opportunity to hear about this and consider it today.”

President William Powers Jr., who was also at the meeting, said fundraising cannot begin until the project has been added to the System’s program. He said the plan is entirely contingent on funding from the Texas Legislature and, more importantly, private donors.
“It will continue to be a process going forward,” Powers said. “Given the economic conditions, it will be a project to get outside funding.”

Powers said the project will not be funded by tuition or other student fees.

Regent James Dannenbaum, a UT engineering alumnus, said the project will attract the necessary funding from private donors.

“As an engineer, I do want the board to know that the engineering alumni are absolutely euphoric about this project,” Dannenbaum said. “Dean Fenves is a superstar that has all of them excited and energized. I have a high degree of confidence that the philanthropy part of this project will be met and things will proceed as the dean has outlined.”

John Ekerdt, associate dean of engineering, said the project addresses the critical need of the college.

“The key is space,” Ekerdt said. “We have several buildings that are functionally obsolete, and we need to renew these facilities.”

According to the proposal, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering alone will be able to add nine new faculty members and 180 graduate students. Ekerdt said the proposal is referring to increased office space for new faculty and graduate students. The plan will also create office space for faculty at the J.J. Pickle Center Research Campus, who currently work in temporary buildings.

Ekerdt said the transition process of demolishing and rebuilding the sites will cause many faculty members to shift from their current offices, labs and classrooms.

“That’s one of the first things that will be addressed,” Ekerdt said. “It will be a problem because engineering and natural science programs that are located where the first proposed building is will need to find a home somewhere.”

Ekerdt said, despite the anticipated roadblocks, students and faculty are excited, especially when leaving the temporary tin-shed classrooms behind.

“It’s intended to be a destination for collaboration in an environment that wasn’t before,” Ekerdt said.