Why the United States relies so much on air conditioning

IIf you spent any time this summer in the United States, no matter where you were, chances are you experienced some pretty extreme heat. Last July marked the third hottest July in the 128-year temperature record held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, behind 1936 (the hottest) and 2012. As heat waves swept across the country, eight states suffered some of their best July temperatures. -five hottest, including Texas, which had its hottest July ever.

But 2022 is less an anomaly and more than one more rung on the ladder of rising temperatures driven by global climate change. To adapt, people in the United States are relying more on home cooling systems, which provide relief but at a major financial and environmental cost. Here are five graphs that illustrate the country’s paradoxical dependence on air conditioning.

1. Almost everyone is cooling their house these days.

The United States has historically had one of the highest home air conditioning usage rates in the world. And it continues to grow. Air conditioning in US homes has increased from 77% of households in 2001 to 88% in 2020, making it now nearly ubiquitous, according to data from an Energy Information Administration (EIA) survey. Most cooling systems are home appliances, such as central air conditioners or central heat pumps, as shown in the table below. But adoption varies by time of construction: 83% of homes built before 1950 are air-conditioned, compared to 93% of homes built in the 2010s.

There are also regional differences. The holdouts tend to be found along the historically temperate Pacific Coast, where only about half of homes have air conditioning. But even in this climatic region, where multi-day heat waves are becoming commonplace, things are changing with new construction: 66% of homes built in the 2010s are air-conditioned, compared to 39% of homes built before 1950.

2. Americans with AC like to keep their homes cool

American households are much more likely to have air conditioning than their European counterparts, in part because fresh air has always been a necessity in certain areas of the United States, such as the humid South and the desert Southwest. In countries like France, the UK and Germany, less than 5% of homes in each country have air conditioning, according to a 2018 report by the International Energy Agency, despite waves of intense heat that has hit these countries recently.

But Americans don’t just have better access to home air conditioning. They also tend to blow it up, including when they are not at home. According to a TIME analysis of 2015 statistics from the EIA, the most recent data available, the average temperature was pegged at 74°F when no one was home. This average dropped closer to 70°F when someone was home and at night. The US Department of Energy previously suggested that summer thermostats be set to 78°F during home hours and 82°F at night, but later clarified that the guidelines were less about setting a number strict and more to illustrate that it is about more energy. effective in raising the temperature by approximately 4°F at night and 7°F when away from home.

Read more: Summers get unbearably hot before they even begin

But a closer look at the EIA data suggests that Americans don’t universally follow that advice. People with room air conditioners, like window units and portable systems, tend to vary their temperature settings depending on the time of day and if someone is home. Those with central air conditioners, on the other hand, are more likely to set a temperature and leave it there most of the time.

There are several problems with running AC so frequently, so forcefully, and so unnecessarily. On the one hand, it increases the demand on the electricity network, which can trigger blackouts; The Texas grid facility requested in July that residents limit air conditioning and other major appliances amid peak record demand. Worse still, air conditioners contribute to global warming by emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. When air conditioners reach the end of their life, the hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in the coolant can leak out, which is why some states began phasing them out even before the Environmental Protection Agency environment announced that it would do so last year. Additionally, air conditioning units powered by utility companies indirectly increase carbon dioxide emissions, as these utilities typically rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity.

3. But Americans are struggling to pay for it

Where there is cool relief, there is also financial hardship. AC power isn’t cheap, and for many, it’s downright unaffordable. In 2020, 34 million US households (27%) said they would not be able to meet their energy needs at some point that year, according to the EIA. Among them, 20% had reduced the amount of food or medicine they bought to pay their energy bills, and 10% had left their homes in an unsafe temperature due to cost concerns. Additionally, 10% had received a disconnection notice from their utility company, although this percentage may have been lower than in other years as a number of states issued temporary shutdown moratoriums related to the pandemic.

Households were feeling the pinch even before this summer due to the higher cost of natural gas, which power plants need to operate. Government statistics for June show the average residential electricity price was 15.42¢ per kilowatt hour that month, up from 13.85¢ a year earlier, an increase of 11%. But some parts of the United States have seen prices increase by more than 20% during this period, as shown in the graph below.

Lagging government statistics do not fully capture the affordability problem. But like Bloomberg business week reports, more than 20 million U.S. households (about one in six) are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA), an organization that represents state governments to secure federal funding for energy assistance programs. Additionally, NEADA reports that the average cost of summer cooling between June and September was around $450 last year and is expected to be around $600 this year.

4. Protections are scattered and temporary

The federal government provides energy assistance funding to states through LIHEAP, short for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Biden administration more than doubled the program’s allocated funding from $3.8 billion for 2022 to $8.3 billion thanks to a provision in the US bailout that allowed families to pay overdue bills as well. as current invoices. The extra money runs out on September 30, 2022, and next year’s funding will drop to around $4 billion unless Congress increases it.

All states except Florida and Hawaii prohibit utility cuts for medically vulnerable residents who are in arrears. Some states also have specific requirements for households with babies and the elderly. But broad protections against utility cuts when the weather gets too hot or too cold are uneven across the country. According to LIHEAP data, 41 states and Washington, DC have general protections against utility outages in extremely cold weather, but only 16 states and Washington, DC have similar general protections in extremely hot weather.

According to Mark Wolfe, Executive Director of NEADA, lack of protections is not the source of the shutdown problem (affordability is), nor are protections an ultimate solution for customers in difficulty. (because the bill doesn’t go away, and customers can have their power turned off right after a heatwave and not restored until the next one hits, he says). But in extremely hot weather, which can trigger and exacerbate serious health problems, such protections could save lives.

Read more: Climate experts are testing new ways to reach those hardest hit by extreme heat

“States decide how to allocate the funds during the year,” says Wolfe. “And until recently, states used about 85% of the money they got for heating. The problem is that we only have enough money to reach one in six eligible households, and on top of that, we don’t have enough money to pay the heating and cooling bills.

5. Change is happening, but slowly

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act offers financial incentives such as tax credits to low-income households who improve the insulation and energy efficiency of their homes. It’s a step in the right direction to optimize cooling in an ever warming world. But Wolfe says those incentives may not reach lower- and middle-class households who probably can’t afford the upfront costs.

As the graph below shows, utility costs have increased for everyone, but those in the lower income brackets are feeling it more, as they allocate a much larger share of their income to maintaining the running. Utilities typically offer specialized payment plans, but these tend to work best when residents have long periods to pay in a particularly expensive season. Increasingly, however, high energy bills arrive in winter and summer, leaving customers with less flexibility.

“As we think about adapting to rising temperatures, we think a lot about infrastructure like levees and railroads, which cost hundreds of billions of dollars,” Wolfe says. “The other piece is, how can we help protect families from rising temperatures?”

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