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Industry Insight

A/C Dicey

By Richard Romano
Published: July 12, 2012

With luck, this summer’s record heatwave will abate somewhat this week, but given the high temperatures it seemed appropriate to link to a Washington Post post about how the air conditioner transformed the U.S. economy—and may actually be contributing to the climate change that is wreaking higher than normal temperatures upon us. (The post itself derives from the recent book by Stan Cox called Losing Our Cool, about the history and environmental impacts of air conditioning.
The amount of energy consumed by U.S. homes for air conditioning has doubled in the past 12 years, according to Cox, and now accounts for nearly 20 percent of our electricity use. What’s more, developing countries like China and India want in on what’s viewed as an utter necessity. The New York Times recently reported that sales of AC units are rising 20 percent per year in those two nations. If all of these countries keep burning coal to satisfy demand for indoor cooling, the result will be more carbon dioxide in the air. (The newer, ozone-friendly HFCs used in the units are also highly potent greenhouse gases.) That means a hotter planet overall, which will, in turn, require even more air conditioning to survive.
There are solutions, some easy, some not. One is to make air conditioners more efficient, and to only cool those rooms that people are actually in, rather than crank up the central air and turn a largely vacant house into a meat locker. Also:
Better insulation and ventilation can reduce the need for AC, as can plant-covered “green roofs” that cool buildings naturally. There also exist promising alternatives to traditional AC, including ground-source heat pumps, which channel hot air in a house down into the ground during the summer.
In his book, Cox himself points out that we may not even need to set the A/C very low. In Japan, the government has strongly suggested that businesses keep their thermostats at 81°F. And we’ve all gone into malls or movie theaters where the A/C was turned up way too high—which only makes returning to the hot outdoors all that much worse. Also, too: keep cars cool with tinted windows.

Please offer your feedback to Richard. He can be reached at richard@whattheythink.com.



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