The growing energy burden of air conditioning

July 27, 2016

As summer heat waves push temperatures into triple digits, countless people sit inside seeking shelter from the sun. Ceiling fans and open windows once provided as much relief as possible, but air conditioning units now reign supreme, blasting refrigerated air into homes, offices and public buildings around the world. While some buildings have enjoyed this perk for years, millions more are poised to make the upgrade, as both supply and demand are fueled by rising global temperatures and household wealth.

On the surface, this trend marks a step in the right direction, as more people worldwide will have access to comfortable living. That being said, the sheer scale with which we are adopting air conditioning presents a serious challenge. Although today's AC units are more efficient than ever, they still use as much as 20 times more energy than a ceiling fan, according to Lucas Davis, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Plus, with countries like China, Mexico, India, Indonesia and Brazil adopting AC at astonishing rates, the world will add 700 million air conditioners in the next 15 years, and as many as 1.6 billion by 2050, a report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Library found. 

"Five percent of America's energy usage goes to powering air conditioning units."

The cost of cool air
Already, as much as 5 percent of America's energy usage goes to powering air conditioning units. What's more, the refrigerants these devices use to cool the air are released as hydroflourocarbons, one of the most potent and longest-lasting greenhouse gasses created by man, Grist reported. Add that to millions of tons of carbon emissions a year in the U.S. alone, and you'll start to see just how heavy a burden air conditioning places on both the environment and our energy requirements.

With explosive growth predicted across the rest of the world in the next few decades, energy professionals, building owners and consumers alike are challenged to come up with a more sustainable alternative or form of air conditioning that can provide people with comfortable living temperatures without such intense energy use. 

Energy-efficiency tips
Builders who include energy efficient options in their residences and commercial spaces can dramatically reduce the amount of energy their air conditioning systems draw, even on the hottest days. Features like advanced insulation, energy-efficient windows and doors, shading and ventilation can keep a home cool on warm days – and even when it's hot enough to flip on the AC, these features will limit how hard the system has to work to keep the building cool. 

Alternative systems like whole-house fans and evaporative cooling can also provide relief in warm climates, limiting air conditioning usage to only the hottest few days or weeks of the summer.