Cold Facts About Air Conditioning

There may be people who understand the big picture about air conditioning better than Stan Cox, but the list is surely a short one.

Cox, who wrote Losing Our Cool:  Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, has also just written an excellent brief article called “Cooling A Warming Planet:  A Global Air Conditioning Surge”

In this posting, rather than comment on Cox’s article, some of the facts are so succinctly presented that it makes no sense for me to try to improve upon them.  So, I will excerpt some highlights, starting right off the bat with the introductory paragraph:

“The world is warming, incomes are rising, and smaller families are living in larger houses in hotter places.  One result is a booming market for air conditioning — world sales in 2011 were up 13 percent over 2010, and that growth is expected to accelerate in coming decades…If global consumption for cooling grows as projected to 10 trillion kilowatt-hours per year — equal to half of the world’s electricity supply today — the climate forecast will be grim indeed.”

“The United States has long consumed more energy each year for air conditioning than the rest of the world combined.  In fact, we use more electricity for cooling than the entire continent of Africa, home to a billion people, consumes for all purposes.”

“Because it is so deeply dependent on high-energy cooling, the United States is not very well positioned to call on other countries to exercise restraint for the sake of our common atmosphere…With less exposure to heat, our bodies can fail to acclimatize physiologically to summer conditions, while we develop a mental dependence on cooling.  Community cohesion also has been ruptured, as neighborhoods that on warm summer evenings were once filled with people mingling are now silent — save for the whirring of air-conditioning units.  A half-century of construction on the mondel of refrigerated cooling has left us with homes and offices in which natural ventilation often is either impossible or ineffective.  The result is that the same cooling technology that can save lives during brief, intense heat waves is helping undermine our health at most other times.”

But, “China is already sprinting forward and is expected to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest user of electricity for air conditioning by 2020.  Consider this:  the number of U.S. homes equipped with air conditioning rose from 64 to 100 million between 1993 and 2009, whereas 50 million air-conditioning units were sold in 2010 alone.”

“The greatest demand growth in the post-2020 world is expected to occur elsewhere….Already, [in India], about 40 percent of all electricity consumption in the city of Mumbai goes for air conditioning…Within 15 years, Saudi Arabia could actually be consuming more oil than it exports, due largely to air conditioning.”

“In thinking about global demand for cooling, two key questions emerge:  Is it fair to expect people in Mumbai to go without air conditioning when so many in Miami use it freely?  And if not, can the world find ways to adapt to warmer temperatures that are fair to all and do not depend on the unsupportable growth of air conditioning?”

In response to these two daunting questions, Cox suggests some possible technological paths forward:

“Efforts to develop low-energy methods for warm climates are in progress on every continent.  Passive cooling projects…combine traditional technologies — like wind towers and water evaporation — with newly designed ventilation-friendly architectural features.  Solar adsorption air conditioning performs a magician’s trick, using only the heat of the sun to cool the indoor air….Meanwhile, in India and elsewhere, cooling is being achieved solely with air pumped from underground tunnels.”

This implies a wide space of opportunity for cleantech innovators, entrepreneurs and financiers.  In a short piece in its July 28 edition, The Economist profiled Advantix Systems, which is developing a new air conditioning technology that promises 30-50% less energy consumption.  Hopefully, one of many new entrants to address the pressing cooling challenge facing the world.

Keeping Cool

Richard T. Stuebi

As pretty much everyone knows, it’s been a hot summer — here in the Northeastern U.S. and across the globe — as 2010 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record. This weekend was brutally so, and to capitalize on it, the Plain-Dealer here in Cleveland ran a couple of articles on air conditioning in yesterday’s paper.

The more interesting article (which obviously was syndicated nationally, as here is the version from the Los Angeles Times) was a piece by Stan Cox entitled “AC: It’s Not as Cool as You Think”. Cox is promoting his new book Losing Our Cool, which profiles the utterly pivotal role of air conditioning in shaping today’s world.

Cox points out some staggering numbers. Only 50 years ago, just 12% of U.S. homes were air conditioned; today, that’s up to 85%. Of course, AC enabled the massive migration from the U.S. Northeast to the South and the Southwest — which would be pretty uninhabitable without air conditioning — and the development of suburbs and commuting patterns that will prevail for a long time to come. According to statistics cited by Cox, air conditioning in the U.S. is responsible for half a billion metric tons of carbon emissions annually — more than the total emissions of Australia, France, Brazil or Indonesia.

To the extent there’s good news here, it’s that substantial opportunities exist for improving air conditioning technologies. For instance, geothermal heat pump systems have long been proven to be a far more efficient method of cooling buildings than conventional AC — if only more architects, engineers and building owners would become aware of this option and consider making a modest additional investment to reduce their future energy bills. And, as noted in the article “Keeping Cool and Green” in the July 17 issue of the Economist, a plethora of innovative approaches on the drawing board promise the potential for further reducing energy consumption requirements associated with air conditioning.

Given that about 40% of U.S. energy requirements are associated with buildings, and about 40% of building energy consumption is associated with climate control, it behooves us to get much more serious about getting cool. Especially if climate change over the next few decades makes summers like this one seem mild.

Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.