Down the A/C rabbit hole

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It’s the summer and air conditioning is in the news; generating a spat of articles from journalists mostly sniping at each other about whether it is a gift from God or from the Devil. A somewhat pretentious piece in the New York Times decrying our freezing buildings kicked it off, rebutted quite thoroughly only days later in Slate. Then the Washington Post wrote about how much less A/C the Europeans use which was strongly protested over at Bloomberg View. A call was made to cool down the "overheated argument" at the Daily Beast and see the merits of both sides. Whew! And the summer heat is not done with us yet!

Are we over-cooling ourselves?

Having lived there I can tell you that the tropical highlands is the climate zone best suited to the human body.1)See for example the weather in Guatemala City, 60-80F, and its like that all year long. So unless humanity makes a mass migration to these zones, we are going to keep modifying our climatic habitats. For all the hate it generates, cooling uses far less energy than heating does in the USA.2)This is a point I hope to delve into more deeply in the future. As far as the Europeans using A/C less, that can mostly be attributed to a far cooler climate, but I would also add that their much older building stock makes HVAC very difficult while their smarter vacation policies means everyone can get away during the worst of it.

That being said it is obvious that many building are being obnoxiously over-cooled in the US (and from recent experience in Mexico--and surely many other places). Clearly some consultants have determined that people buy more stuff when cold while offices are often set at the preferred temperature of the coldest person. Yet, ultimately I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of somehow mandating the temperatures that individuals have to live at. Incentivize more Sustainable behavior sure, but it is comments like this that cause people hate liberals and environmentalists:
it makes me wish fervently that Hillary becomes president and forces everybody to put their thermostats at 76.

Globally, A/C is on track for a massive increase

In case anyone doubted it, a recent study found that as people in warm climates get wealthier they install A/C until there is virtually universal saturation (almost completed in the USA). There are literally billions of people who are getting wealthier living in the tropics or sub-tropics who can't wait to be a bit cooler. Stan Cox has warned us that electricity consumed by A/C is set to multiply by 8-10 times!3)If I am really going to come back to this topic I'll need to check out his 2010 book, Losing Our Cool. A/C clearly re-made america and no one actually wants to undo that. Now it looks set to re-make the rest of the world.4)Another one for my reading list, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.

Overflowing HVACs
Photo by chooyutshing
As I said when talking about freezing dumplings, everything needs to be thought about in terms of how it scales to 7 billion. The other side of this coin is that every single one of those 7 billion should (in our Sustainable Future) have equal access to a great quality of life. I think it is fairly clear that, given the ability to do so (technologically and financially), most humans want to live, work and play in climates that don't get much hotter than 85 nor much cooler than 65. This is not something we are going to guilt away (nor should we), nor change with informational campaigns. Homo sapiens everywhere biologically prefer comfortable temperatures and we have the technology to deliver it and only delivering it to some (e.g. Americans) would be grossly unjust.

Applying TIP to our global A/C challenge

TIPSince I just published a framework that I thought might help guide us to develop solutions to Sustainability problems, I had better apply it here.

  1. Technology
    1. Continue to increase the efficiency of A/C units.
    2. Improve modeling of energy use to maximize efficiency.
    3. Thermostat and other personalized climate technologies.
  2. Individual Action
    1. Temperatures indoors should vary seasonally, cooler in the winter, warmer in the summer. (as should clothing etc)
    2. Set aside 5 minutes to set your programmable thermostat.
    3. Take advantage of utility subsidized energy audits and efficiency upgrades.
  3. Policy
    1. Continue to improve efficiency standards. This year efficiency standards have been bumped up and this needs to continue.
    2. Government buildings should be set at seasonally appropriate levels (also helps with norm setting).
    3. Subsidize energy efficiency improvements for cooling--in particular for low income residents.
    4. If LEED building standards were applied we could see huge savings in energy for cooling.
    5. Companies could be pressured to change their thermostat settings in stores etc, in the way they have been pressured to buy sustainable wood etc.
    6. Finance further research into cooling technology.
I look forward to diving more into data and actual research on this topic so my thoughts here are preliminary.5)I did a quick Google Scholar search and could not get past engineering and other technical type papers. Ideas to find papers on A/C in the real world? I think the good news is that demand for cooling is probably close to being saturated in the USA6)I would guess it will continue to go up as people move to warmer climates but that will be more than offset by falling heating demand. and the efficiency of the technology is continuing to improve. But there are billions of people who would love to cool their homes even half as much as the US and efficiency improvements won't make much of a dent in the electrical demand surge this will cause. In fact when you look at all of the ideas I just presented, they are fairly small relative to the total size of A/C's impact. This is not to say they are not worth doing but we should acknowledge that electricity consumed by A/C is going to go up globally. We should work hard to bring down A/C's impact in the US and double down on our efforts in areas like lighting where we can make 90% type improvements.

The story of A/C demonstrates that in the long run (or even the medium) a Sustainable world is going to require carbon free electricity, there is simply no just7)There are always unjust ways--e.g. no new A/C units can be installed. way around it.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. See for example the weather in Guatemala City, 60-80F, and its like that all year long.
2. This is a point I hope to delve into more deeply in the future.
3. If I am really going to come back to this topic I'll need to check out his 2010 book, Losing Our Cool.
4. Another one for my reading list, Cool: How Air Conditioning Changed Everything.
5. I did a quick Google Scholar search and could not get past engineering and other technical type papers. Ideas to find papers on A/C in the real world?
6. I would guess it will continue to go up as people move to warmer climates but that will be more than offset by falling heating demand.
7. There are always unjust ways--e.g. no new A/C units can be installed.
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