Wednesday, October 13, 2010

How air-conditioning is baking our world

US homes use as much electricity for air conditioning as the whole of Africa, claims a new book by Stan Cox.

When you think of the causes of global warming, you may picture an SUV before you picture a central AC unit. But almost 20 percent of electricity consumption in U.S. homes goes to AC -- that's as much electricity as the entire continent of Africa uses for all purposes. So says Stab Coxin his new book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer).

Cox, a scientist and agricultural researcher who lives in Salina, Kansas, doesn't paint AC as the bogeyman. Rather, he makes the point that our world has developed in many unsustainable directions overall, and air-conditioning has been a crucial part of that development. He also argues that making air-conditioners and other appliances more energ efficient isn't going to get us out of this mess. He was interviewed last week about his new book. Open a window, undo a button, and enjoy ...

Q. Why did you write a book on air-conditioning?

A. In the past half-century, a number of big, energy-guzzling technologies have really changed our lives: automobiles, computers, television, jet aircraft. All that time, air-conditioning has been humming away in the background, like a character actor you see in a whole bunch of movies. It's never the star, but it always seems to be there moving the plot along.

When I looked at the doubling in the amount of electricity used for air conditioning homes in this country just since the mid-90s, I thought, we really need to address this, because it is a big contributor to greenhouse-gas release and it's going to increase the likelihood that we're going to have longer, more intense heat waves and hotter summers in the future, and we're going to have to be running the air-conditioning even more.

Q. That seemed to be a theme throughout the book -- that the use of air-conditioning leads to a cycle where it needs to be used more.

A. Yes, the biggest example of that is probably global warming. But there are a lot of ways in which air-conditioning creates need for itself, including by eroding our heat tolerance. Once we've built office buildings and commercial buildings on the assumption of air-conditioning, then we pretty much have to use it. We've created a lot of space that's almost uninhabitable without it. In many buildings, the windows don't open at all anymore.

In the book, I put a lot of emphasis on what's known as the adaptive model of comfort. It's based on surveys of people who are working at different temperatures and asked if they're comfortable. People can psychologically adjust to buildings that are cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer. The comment I've heard most since the book came out is from people who work in offices and complain that their offices are too cold in the summer, and they have to take sweaters or use space heaters, wasting even more energy. Without eroding people's working conditions or quality of life at all, there could be a big savings there.

Q. I thought it was interesting that you linked AC to obesity, in the sense that people are indoors more often and their bodies don't have to work to adjust to the temperature changes during the year.

A. Right, that's one of the hypotheses that a group of medical researchers came up with to explain the rise in obesity -- the slower burning of energy by the body in the comfort range, where it doesn't have to work to either shed heat or generate heat (in addition to the normal explanations that people are eating more and exercising less). Another way AC could be affecting obesity is that people tend to eat more when in cooler conditions. And also, by making the indoors more attractive in the summertime, we've made it less likely that people are going to be outdoors where we're more physically active.

The book, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer), is available on Amazon.cpm

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