The AC dilemma


in Canada, Daily updates, Economics, Rants, The environment, Toronto

After many shorter spans which left us sweating in our third floor rooms, Toronto is now immersed in the longest and most intense heat wave of the summer so far.

This leaves me feeling awkward about actually owning an air conditioner, which I have never moved from its storage location in our living room. During my long search for accomodation, I saw many, many deeply unappealing, distant, and overly expensive rooms. When the chance to rent this one arose, I wanted to do everything possible to avoid somehow losing this one. So, when the previous inhabitant wanted to sell me his furniture (as well as most of the furniture in the common areas) I was willing to do so at the prices he initially suggested. That’s how I ended up with a $150 air conditioner which fits in my window but which I have never turned on.

My reluctance is entirely about the energy use and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Remarkably, in a city that goes below -20 ˚C in winter, Toronto’s highest energy demand is during hot summer days when everyone turns their air conditioning on. This isn’t so remarkable really, in part because cooling is fundamentally less efficient than heating. Turning electricity into heat is essentially a 100% efficient process. By contrast, refrigeration requires the inefficient compression of a coolant (producing heat as an unwanted by-product) which is then expanded in the area to be cooled and circulated elsewhere to be re-compressed and release the heat it has absorbed into the outside environment.

Perhaps worst of all is that when energy demand peaks, Ontario cannot produce enough electricity from low-carbon sources including large-scale hydroelectric and nuclear — instead turning on natural gas ‘peaker’ plants that would not otherwise run, like the Portlands Energy Centre.

Another oddity is that, for renters like us, electricity bills are paid by the landlord. Cooling would thus have no associated financial cost for me.

There are arguments in favour of me using AC. At the best of times, summers carry a danger of being inefficient doldrums. Without the structure asociated with teaching tutorials, regular meals at Massey, regular contact and communication with colleagues, and all the other motivating accompaniments of the school year, it can be easy to become unproductive. This is even more true when it is too hot to sleep, or even to sit in my room reading or doing research in a productive way.

I do have fairly easy access to cooled work areas at Massey College and Robarts Library, and that has been my chief means of escaping the heat.

This particular wave is meant to break over the next few days. I am greatly looking forward to the fall, which I think may be my favourite season in this part of the world. As in Ottawa, it provides an enjoyably span of pleasantly cooler and cooler days. Even the depth of winter is far preferable to mid-summer, in my eyes. I can always break out the wool long underwear, and wearing coats is often convenient for carrying things. By contrast, summer often leaves us with worsening the climate change plight of everyone in the future as our only means of avoiding the discomfort of heat and humidity right now.

As for the air conditioner, I can’t sell it because that would certainly lead to it being frequently used. Perhaps the best option is to find somewhere that can remove the coolant, since they are powerful greenhouse gases when they leak, and recycle as much of the rest of the device as possible.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan August 11, 2016 at 4:26 pm

Naturally, this connects to the eternal question of ‘Resistance’ versus ‘abstinence’ in responding to climate change

. August 15, 2016 at 10:01 am
. August 15, 2016 at 11:00 pm
. August 31, 2016 at 1:21 pm
. October 7, 2016 at 3:09 pm
. October 10, 2016 at 4:05 pm

““The use of hydrofluorocarbons is growing. Already, the HFCs used in refrigerators, air conditioners, inhalers … are emitting a gigaton of CO2-equivalent pollution into the atmosphere annually. If that sounds like a lot; it is. It’s equivalent to the emissions from nearly 300 coal-fired power plants every single year,” the US secretary of state, John Kerry, told a UN meeting on the Montreal protocol earlier this year.

“An HFC phasedown amendment is a critical piece of the climate puzzle,” he added.

HFC use is increasing rapidly, driven by sales of fridges and air conditioning especially in fast-growing developing countries.

Researchers at the US government’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have calculated that 700m air-conditioning units, all using HFCs, are likely to be installed worldwide by 2030 and 1.6bn by 2050, it says.

The UN’s climate change body, the IPCC, has projected that global air-conditioning energy demand will grow 33-fold from 300 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2000 to more than 10,000TWh in 2100, with most of the growth coming in developing economies.

Countries meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, this week will be asked to approve an amendment to the Montreal protocol. This would cover HFCs and, over time, eliminate the manufacture of the chemicals and, potentially reduce global temperatures by an around 0.5C by 2100.”

. September 19, 2017 at 10:12 pm

Thompson: Truly, thank God for Willis Carrier. The global effects of air-conditioning that you describe are mind-blowing. Air-conditioning transformed cities’ skylines, allowing for tall glassy skyscrapers that didn’t broil people in the top floors. It transformed demographics, allowing for migration in the U.S. to the Sun Belt, to Atlanta and Phoenix. By allowing politically conservative retirees to move south and west, you quote the author Steven Johnson saying that air-conditioning elected Ronald Reagan.

Harford: Yes, and it’s key to have a global perspective, too. This didn’t just reshape America. Air-conditioning reshaped the world. Places like Singapore and Shanghai are miserable when they’re hot and humid, but today they are global metropolises. There are studies saying that human productivity peaks around 70 degrees. That means that air-conditioning made us more productive, but also, by creating density in Singapore, it allows people to work longer and keep making the world a rich place. There is also the dark side of air-conditioning. You cool the temperature inside, but these units are energy-hungry, and they contribute to global warming.

Milan June 8, 2021 at 9:31 pm

Toronto just broke an 81-year old hot weather temperature record

. July 3, 2021 at 7:15 pm

In research labs around the country, you can find experiments with walls engineered to suck heat out of buildings, and wood that’s altered to be stronger, cooler, and better for insulation. But right now, the only technology deployed at scale against extreme heat is air conditioning. Nearly 90 percent of the homes in America have it — it’s as necessary as running water and a toilet.

Without air conditioning, the world as we know it today wouldn’t exist. It’s inconceivable that there would be a city of 4.5 million people living in the middle of the Southwestern desert — much less 20 million people living in Florida — without air conditioning. After World War II, Americans flocked from chilly Northern states to sunny Southern states. It was one of the great demographic shifts of the 20th century, and it precisely mirrored the proliferation of air conditioners. “Air conditioning was essential to the development of the Sun Belt,” historian Gary Mormino has argued. “It was unquestionably the most significant factor.”

Air conditioning is one of those paradoxical modern technologies that creates just as many problems as it solves. For one thing, it requires a lot of energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels. AC and fans already account for 10 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Globally, the number of air-conditioning units is expected to quadruple by 2050. Even accounting for modest growth in renewable power, the carbon emissions from all this new AC would result in a more than 0.9°F increase in global temperature by the year 2100.

Cheap air conditioning is like crack cocaine for modern civilization, keeping us addicted and putting off serious thinking about more creative (and less fossil-fuel-intensive) solutions. Air conditioning also creates a kind of extreme heat apartheid. If you’re rich, you have a big house with enough air conditioning to chill a martini. And if you are poor, like Leonor Juarez, a 46-year-old single mother whom I met on a recent July afternoon when the temperature was hovering around 115°F, you live in South Phoenix, where sidewalks are dirt and trees are few, and you hope you can squeeze enough money out of your paycheck to run the AC for a few hours on hot summer nights.

. July 24, 2021 at 3:25 pm

In America’s least air-conditioned cities, brutal heat changes some people’s minds

. August 11, 2021 at 7:43 pm

Demand for air conditioning is set to surge by 2050 | The Economist

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