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Climate Change

The Air Conditioning Conundrum: More Cooling Begets More Climate Heating

As the environment gets hotter, the demand for air conditioning increases, which leads to more carbon emissions from generating plants, which in turn makes the environment even hotter.

Global heating makes indoor spaces hotter (d’uh) and that makes more people turn to air conditioners to cool things down. More air conditioners mean more carbon emissions which in turn make the world hotter still. You see where this is going, right?

Global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, according to a 2018 report from The International Energy Agency. There are about 1.6 billion air conditioners in the world today. By 2050, there will be 5.6 billion the IEA says. Executive director Fatih Birol says, “Growing electricity demand for air conditioning is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate.”

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Credit: Lennox, Inc

Hawaii is one place where the demand for air conditioning is exploding. Honolulu news source Civil Beat reports that in the 1970s, only 14% of Oahu homes had air conditioners. The number was as low as 2% on some of the other islands, according to Hawaiian Electric, the largest utility company in the state.  Today, AC is part of life for 68% of HECO’s residential customers on Oahu, more than half of those on Maui, Molokai, and Lanai, and 32% of those on the Big Island.

Here is another aspect of global heating that is seldom recognized. For centuries, homes in Hawaii have been cooled by ocean breezes, but one of the side effects of hotter atmospheric and ocean temperatures is a reduction in wind speeds. There simply aren’t as many cooling breezes as there were in the past.

“As a kid growing up in Ewa Beach, we never needed air conditioning,” says Shannon Tangonan, a spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric. “Now, you really do need it. It’s almost unbearable. We go as long as we can without turning on that AC, but come noon, one o’clock, it gets to the point where it’s like, OK, turn on the AC.”

Hawaii has one of the most ambitious renewable energy goals of any US state, but the rising demand for air conditioning will make it harder to reach those goals. Brian Kealoha, executive director of Hawaii Energy, a ratepayer-funded energy efficiency and conservation program, says, “As we think about how we get to our 100% clean energy goal, part of how we were going to get there was a reduction of our usage. But with air conditioning now, in a lot of cases, we’re increasing that overall usage.”

One solution is to improve the energy efficiency of homes and buildings, but making improvements to existing structures can be expensive. In particular, low income families may not have the financial resources to pay for those improvements and so must pay higher and higher utility bills as they use more and more air conditioning. More efficient heat pumps cost more money than window air conditioners and require professionals to install them. Anyone can open a window and stick an air conditioner into it.

“Oftentimes when bad things happen, people with little resources are the ones that suffer the most and that would be no different here,” said Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.

Brian Keoloha says Hawaii Energy is working to increase the number of efficient air conditioning units on the market and is encouraging customers to limit their usage, especially during peak times. Smart grid technology that allows utility companies some measure of control over when air conditioners operate can also help lower energy demand. “There is a circular impact of what’s happening here,” Keolaha says. “Carbon emissions raise the temperature, it gets hotter, and you use more AC and more energy. Until we move to 100% renewable, the cycle starts to feed upon itself.”

More efficient air conditioning technology could also help restrain the increase in electricity needed to meet the demand for cooling in homes and businesses. Researchers in Spain are experimenting with solid crystals they say can replace the refrigerants used in conventional AC units. Other researchers in Singapore are testing water based cooling systems.

Rex Tillerson, the loathsome ex-CEO of ExxonMobil, sniffs that humans will simply adapt to a hotter environment. But for the rest of us, dealing with warmer temperatures means using more air conditioning. Figuring out how to keep ourselves cool while using less energy will be a vital part of confronting the coming climate crisis.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. You can follow him on Twitter but not on any social media platforms run by evil overlords like Facebook.


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