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.