I’ve been catching up on a backlog of podcasts this week (I haven’t used my iPod in weeks; in New York City you almost feel alien if you walk the streets without cables in your ears). From one of my favorites, the NPR Environment podcast, two surprising stories.

The first is from their excellent Climate Connections series, created in conjunction with National Geographic. Who knew that Nigeria’s natural gas flares are so big they can be viewed from space? As horrifying as it sounds, apparently, "every year, millions of dollars are literally going up in smoke in Nigeria," as oil-drilling companies burn off unwanted natural gas produced during crude- oil extraction.

What makes this practice so egregious, beyond the fact that it contributes more CO2 to the atmosphere than any other activity south of the Sahara, and beyond the fact that the noxious fumes are destroying the respiratory health of Nigeria’s people and dirtying their drinking water, is that the very people who live next to these perennial blow torches often don’t have electricity themselves.

Rather than incinerate all this natural gas, Nigeria could harness it as an energy source. The government has pledged to eliminate flaring by 2008, but it’s unlikely to meet this date; despite small reductions, it still burns 24 million cubic meters of gas annually — "enough to power a good portion of Africa for a whole year."

Because the natural gas market isn’t as profitable as crude oil one, the country continues to endure chronic energy shortage even while the fuel goes up in flames literally in Nigerians’ backyards.

Unbelievable.

On a much lighter note … did you know that a skyscraper can save cooling costs by turning itself into a giant refrigerator instead of using A/C?

According to this radio story, the Metropolitan Life building, constructed back before their was air conditioning, has continued to do without this modern commodity. Instead the building (which now houses Credit Suisse) creates giant blocks of ice at night, then pipes that cool air into the above-ground offices during the day. Because they use off-peak energy, this quirky system saves the company an average of $1 million per year.

The story doesn’t explicitly say what the environmental balance of this system is, but I’m assuming that since it saves electricity, it also saves greenhouse-gas emissions. And there’s an additional air quality benefit because electricity generated at night creates fewer smog-forming pollutants than electricity made during the day.

According to the NY Times, in a recent article on storing renewable energy, another company in California is also into creating municipal popsicles:

The idea, said Frank R. Ramirez, the chief executive of a company called Ice Energy, is that all air conditioners gather heat from within a building and dump it outside, but that moving it outside gets progressively harder as the outdoor temperature rises.

His company installs the ice storage system and runs it at night, when electricity is cheap and when making ice is easy, because the outdoor temperature is lower. Then during the day, the compressor in the building air conditioning system rejects its heat to the cold block, instead of to hot air, sharply lowering the electric demand on hot afternoons.

Unlike the battery, ice storage can break even, or better, Mr. Ramirez said. For every kilowatt-hour put in at night, the system will return a kilowatt-hour of savings the next day, assuming the nighttime temperature is at least 17 degrees cooler than the daytime. In many places, though, the daily temperature swing is larger; if the swing is 35 degrees, which is common in some climates, then three-quarters of a kilowatt-hour deposited will yield a full kilowatt-hour the next day.