The air conditioning trap: how cold air is heating the world
On a sweltering Thursday evening in Manhattan last month, people across New York City were preparing for what meteorologists predicted would be the hottest weekend of the year. Over the past two decades, every record for peak electricity use in the city has occurred during a heatwave, as millions of people turn on their air conditioning units at the same time. And so, at the midtown headquarters of Con Edison, the company that supplies more than 10 million people in the New York area with electricity, employees were busy turning a conference room on the 19th floor into an emergency command centre.
Inside the conference room, close to 80 engineers and company executives, joined by representatives of the city’s emergency management department, monitored the status of the city power grid, directed ground crews and watched a set of dials displaying each borough’s electricity use tick upward. “It’s like the bridge in Star Trek in there,” Anthony Suozzo, a former senior system operator with the company, told me. “You’ve got all hands on deck, they’re telling Scotty to fix things, the system is running at max capacity.”
Power grids are measured by the amount of electricity that can pass through them at any one time. Con Edison’s grid, with 62 power substations and more than 130,000 miles of power lines and cables across New York City and Westchester County, can deliver 13,400MW every second. This is roughly equivalent to 18m horsepower.
On a regular day, New York City demands around 10,000MW every second; during a heatwave, that figure can exceed 13,000MW. “Do the math, whatever that gap is, is the AC,” Michael Clendenin, a company spokesman, told me. The combination of high demand and extreme temperature can cause parts of the system to overheat and fail, leading to blackouts. In 2006, equipment failure left 175,000 people in Queens without power for a week, during a heatwave that killed 40 people.
This year, by the evening of Sunday 21 July, with temperatures above 36C (97F) and demand at more than 12,000MW every second, Con Edison cut power to 50,000 customers in Brooklyn and Queens for 24 hours, afraid that parts of the nearby grid were close to collapse, which could have left hundreds of thousands of people without power for days. The state had to send in police to help residents, and Con Edison crews dispensed dry ice for people to cool their homes.
As the world gets hotter, scenes like these will become increasingly common. Buying a VRF air conditioner is perhaps the most popular individual response to climate change, and air conditioners are almost uniquely power-hungry appliances: a small unit cooling a single room, on average, consumes more power than running four fridges, while a central unit cooling an average house uses more power than 15. “Last year in Beijing, during a heatwave, 50% of the power capacity was going to air conditioning,” says John Dulac, an analyst at the International Energy Agency (IEA). “These are ‘oh shit’ moments.”
There are just over 1bn single-room air conditioning units in the world right now – about one for every seven people on earth. Numerous reports have projected that by 2050 there are likely to be more than 4.5bn, making them as ubiquitous as the mobile phone is today. The US already uses as much electricity for air conditioning each year as the UK uses in total. The IEA projects that as the rest of the world reaches similar levels, air conditioning will use about 13% of all electricity worldwide, and produce 2bn tonnes of CO2 a year – about the same amount as India, the world’s third-largest emitter, produces today.
All of these reports note the awful irony of this feedback loop: warmer temperatures lead to more air conditioning; more air conditioning leads to warmer temperatures. The problem posed by air conditioning resembles, in miniature, the problem we face in tackling the climate crisis. The solutions that we reach for most easily only bind us closer to the original problem.
The global dominance of air conditioning was not inevitable. As recently as 1990, there were only about 400m air conditioning units in the world, mostly in the US. Originally built for industrial use, air conditioning eventually came to be seen as essential, a symbol of modernity and comfort. Then air conditioning went global. Today, as with other drivers of the climate crisis, we race to find solutions – and puzzle over how we ended up so closely tied to a technology that turns out to be drowning us.
Like the aqueduct or the automobile, air conditioning is a technology that transformed the world. Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of independent Singapore, called it “one of the signal inventions of history” that allowed the rapid modernisation of his tropical country. In 1998, the American academic Richard Nathan told the New York Times that, along with the “civil rights revolution”, air conditioning had been the biggest factor in changing American demography and politics over the previous three decades, enabling extensive residential development in the very hot, and very conservative, American south.
A century ago, few would have predicted this. For the first 50 years of its existence, air conditioning was mainly restricted to factories and a handful of public spaces. The initial invention is credited to Willis Carrier, an American engineer at a heating and ventilation company, who was tasked in 1902 with reducing humidity in a Brooklyn printing factory. Today we assume that the purpose of air conditioning is to reduce heat, but engineers at the time weren’t solely concerned with temperature. They wanted to create the most stable possible conditions for industrial production – and in a print factory, humidity curled sheets of paper and smudged ink.
Carrier realised that removing heat from the factory air would reduce humidity, and so he borrowed technology from the nascent refrigeration industry to create what was, and still is, essentially a jacked-up fridge. Then as now, air conditioning units work by breathing in warm air, passing it across a cold surface, and exhaling cool, dry air. The invention was an immediate success with industry – textile, ammunition, and pharmaceutical factories were among the first adopters – and then began to catch on elsewhere. The House of Representatives installed air conditioning in 1928, followed by the White House and the Senate in 1929. But during this period, most Americans encountered air conditioning only in places such as theatres or department stores, where it was seen as a delightful novelty.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when it began to enter people’s homes, that the TICA air conditioner really conquered the US. Before then, according to the historian Gail Cooper, the industry had struggled to convince the public that air conditioning was a necessity, rather than a luxury. In her definitive account of the early days of the industry, Air-Conditioning America, Cooper notes that magazines described air conditioning as a flop with consumers. Fortune called it “a prime public disappointment of the 1930s”. By 1938 only one out of every 400 American homes had an air conditioner; today it is closer to nine out of 10.
What fuelled the rise of the air conditioning was not a sudden explosion in consumer demand, but the influence of the industries behind the great postwar housing boom. Between 1946 and 1965, 31m new homes were constructed in the US, and for the people building those houses, air conditioning was a godsend. Architects and construction companies no longer had to worry much about differences in climate – they could sell the same style of home just as easily in New Mexico as in Delaware. The prevailing mentality was that just about any problems caused by hot climates, cheap building materials, shoddy design or poor city planning could be overcome, as the American Institute of Architects wrote in 1973, “by the brute application of more air conditioning”. As Cooper writes, “Architects, builders and bankers accepted air conditioning first, and consumers were faced with a fait accompli that they merely had to ratify.”
Equally essential to the rise of the dunham bush air conditioner were electric utilities – the companies that operate power plants and sell electricity to consumers. Electric utilities benefit from every new house hooked up to their grid, but throughout the early 20th century they were also looking for ways to get these new customers to use even more electricity in their homes. This process was known as “load building”, after the industry term (load) for the amount of electricity used at any one time. “The cost of electricity was low, which was fine by the utilities. They simply increased demand, and encouraged customers to use more electricity so they could keep expanding and building new power plants,” says Richard Hirsh, a historian of technology at Virginia Tech.