On Friday, the Grand Rapids Press ran a front-page article titled “We Keep Our Cool – But at What Cost” that examined the rising cost of air conditioning. In the short, 219 word article by Jim Harger, the Press examined the air conditioning and its rising cost, with air conditioning, according to Harger and Tom Vanderson of Jacobson Heating and Cooling, being no longer a luxury but instead is thought of as a “necessity” by homeowners that want to be “comfortable” when they come home from work. The article begins by quoting Vanderson who dispels the notion that air conditioning is a luxury and describes how last week—when temperatures were among the highest of the year—employees at Vanderson’s heating and cooling business were putting in extra hours while installing new or repairing existing central air systems.
The article then went on explore the financial costs of air conditioning, with Hager citing Vanderson’s estimate that adding central air conditioning will cost an average household $2,500 with variations depending on the size, location, and existing insulation. Hager also consulted Consumers Energy who provided a variety of statistics on their customers and the prevalence of central air. According to Consumers Energy spokesman Tim Pietryga, 52.1% of residential homes had central air in 2005, a substantial increase from 1981 when only 7.7% of homes had central air. For new homes, Pietryga said that about 80% of those using Consumers Energy have central air. The article explains that “none of the cool air comes without cost” and cites an estimate from Consumers Energy that a “modest-sized central air system” will consume about 3,750 watts of electricity and will cost around 34.5 cents per hour for an addition of $8.23 per day consumers’ monthly electric bills. This added cost is then compared to the cost of other cooling options such as attic fans that operate at “one-tenth of the cost” or the 17 cents per day of the circulating fan.
While the article correctly identifies that there are considerable financial costs to using central air systems, it fails to identify what is likely the most significant cost of air conditioning—its affect on the earth, and by extension, the viability of all life. In an era of global warming and significant environmental destruction, there is evidence that air conditioning—like automobiles and industrial pollution—is threatening the planet. A study titled “Future US Energy Use for 2000-2005 as Computed with Temperatures from a Global Climate Prediction Model and Energy Demand Model” by two scientists with the Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and scheduled for publication in the August issue of Geophysical Research Letters carbon dioxide emissions are increasing as energy use for cooling during increases during warmer months. This increased energy use for cooling will, according to the study, ultimately result in an increase in the number of power plants built with the majority likely being coal powered combustion turbines that can be built quickly and will provide significant amounts of energy while also being the dirtiest type of power plants and dependent on environmentally destructive mining practices such as mountaintop removal mining. The study—which also examines whether or not this increased in cooling costs will be offset by decreased heating costs in the winter—ultimately concludes that “a trend of increased… cost, and carbon emissions are observed” as artificial cooling systems are utilized more frequently. Other research has found that air conditioning accounts for 16% of the percent of the average household’s energy consumption while emitting 3,400 pounds of carbon dioxide for the average home in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Further research by the Energy Department on the effects of air conditioning on automobile fuel efficiency has found that on average air conditioners reduce fuel efficiency by four miles per gallon with air conditioners in cars and light trucks using 7 billion gallons of gasoline per year. Earlier this year, writer Stan Cox argued that the history of air conditioning in this country has dramatically shaped people’s perception of what constitutes “comfortable” temperatures and as a result of the considerable energy required to power air conditioning systems, will make it very difficult for the adoption of alternative energy sources that are unable to match the current (and increasing) electricity needs. Cox’s exploration of cultural attitudes shaped by air conditioning show that the threat to the earth—while no doubt partially connected to poor individual choices—involves far more systemic issues pertaining to an economic model that depends on ever increasing energy usage and continued domination of the natural world.
Clearly, air conditioning has a significant environmental impact simply through increased electricity usage, as coal power plants release 40% of the United States’ carbon dioxide pollution (carbon dioxide is the primary global warming pollutant). Moreover, with air conditioning having a history of generating CFCs responsible in part for global warming, it is clear that the environmental “cost” of air conditioning deserved at the very least a mention in Harger’s article, if not a significant focus.