Over the past half century, a handful of inventions have reshaped American
life. Topping the list are television, passenger jets, computers and -- humming
in the background -- air conditioning.
To step from a sizzling parking lot into a cool, low-humidity shopping mall
is to enjoy a degree of instantaneous relief and pleasure available through
few other legal means. But this nation's addiction to air conditioning, like
all addictions, is costly.
Air conditioning accounts for 16 percent of the average US household's electricity
consumption, the Energy Department says -- the same as all lighting, music systems,
televisons, videotape and DVD players, desktop computers and printers combined.
Usage peaks in summer, forcing utilities to build generating capacity that sits
idle much of the year.
For climate, we're a middling nation: far from the hottest and not among the
coldest. If the planet's 6.2 billion non-Americans used as much air conditioning
per person in their homes as we do, the world’s total electricity requirement
for residential AC would be 4 trillion kilowatt hours annually. That exceeds
the entire combined electricity supply of China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Bangladesh,
Pakistan, Russia, Nigeria and Mexico, which together are home to more than half
An air conditioner makes not only cool, clean, dry air, but also summons its
evil twin: global-warming carbon dioxide. Based on Environmental Protection
Agency numbers, 3,400 pounds of it are emitted each year to cool the average
About 50 percent of US electricity comes from coal, and 17 percent from other
fossil fuels. Coal is the worst carbon culprit, but all means of generating
electricity belch carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases during their construction
In a vehicle, running the air conditioner means blowing more pollution out
the tailpipe. Energy Department figures show that it can reduce city-driving
fuel efficiency by 4 miles per gallon. And when an SUV's engine and air conditioner
are left running in a parking lot to keep that new Shih Tzu puppy happy, the
percentage reduction in gas mileage is incalculable.
The department says air conditioners in US cars and light trucks use 7 billion
gallons of gasoline each year. The oil used to make that gas equals the total
consumed annually by Indonesia, a nation of 240 million.
In years to come, we might have to run air conditioners ragged to provide some
relief from human-fueled global warming. That will only aggravate the crisis.
And not just because we will be burning more coal, natural gas and oil. We
also will be using more refrigerants, air conditioning’s lifeblood. Granted,
there have been deep cuts in production of the most voracious ozone-devouring
refrigerants, including chlorofluorocarbons. But all commonly used refrigerants
are greenhouse gases, and every pound of them on earth is destined someday to
escape into the atmosphere during manufacture, use, recharge, leakage during
recycling or disposal.
In June a large, bipartisan coalition in the Senate and House endorsed a “bold
new goal” of supplying 25 percent of the nation's energy from renewable
sources by 2025. Suppose, after a 20-year crash program, that the typical home
gets a fourth of its electricity from renewables. Should it be blowing almost
two-thirds of that hard-won “green” power just to maintain October
weather indoors when it's July outdoors?
Air conditioning could also frustrate efforts to reduce dependence on foreign
oil. Cooling the interiors of American vehicles for less than five months of
2005 consumed gasoline equivalent to the nation’s entire fuel-ethanol
production for the whole year.
Greatly expanded mass transportation, more efficient vehicles, more ecologically
sound construction and greater efficiency in existing buildings can go only
so far in getting the energy now consumed by "climate control" into
line with reality.
"Comfort" will have to be redefined. Better ventilation and more
shade can provide some relief from the heat, but they can't reverse the seasons.
For 99 percent of recorded history, humanity managed to stay cool by finding
some shade, getting some air moving, and slowing down when it gets too hot.
Starting this summer, let's show the world that a mere few decades of air conditioning
have not turned Americans into wimps. Turn the thermostat to OFF, throw the
windows open, and head for the park instead of the mall.
Stan Cox, a plant breeder and senior scientist at the
Land Institute, Salina,
Kan., wrote this for the institute’s Prairie Writers Circle. Email to:
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Our Cross to Bear