The revolution of the air conditioner

On our yearly jaunt this Spring to Florida, we took pride in only having the air conditioner (AC) on in our rented apartment once or twice during our stay. The nights were cool, daytime temperatures were in the mid-80’s, and it felt good just to experience the ocean breezes.

However, in July and August, life there would be difficult without an air conditioner.

Air conditioning, in my view, is what has made growth in the south possible. Without it, the heat and humidity would make life there almost unbearable. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that we really began to experience the “air conditioner revolution” that has made life in the southern part of the United States so livable.

Today, in Florida, between 30% and 40% of your electric bill is related to air conditioning. As one Florida resident put it to me: “Without air conditioning, we couldn’t live here in the summertime.”

What is not as clear, is how much global warming is related to the air conditioner? What we do know is that air conditioners cool the inside of the house by discharging heat into the atmosphere outside of the house.

The mechanics of AC are similar to that of a refrigerator. A compressor and pump are required to cool and then circulate a coolant. Those of you who, like me, may have a refrigerator in the garage can attest to the fact that it helps heat the garage in the winter time.

That same type of heat transfer is also what happens with air conditioning, though it discharges that heat into the atmosphere outside the house.

There is a built-in inefficiency in all of this when you turn on the AC in your home. Not only are you cooling the house, you are removing heat that is generated by the refrigerator in your house whose purpose is to keep food cold. What a process! But… that is what it takes to keep things cool in America today.

There has been a lot in the press recently about the energy required to run the computers which keep our digital phones and laptops going. The so-called “crypto farms” which drive crypto currencies are especially culpable as energy hogs. Now, we are going to add to that already heavy electric load, the electricity it will take to run artificial intelligence…AI.

And, what else is needed to keep all of those computer/server farms running? Yes, you guessed it… air conditioning! Computers and servers put out a lot of heat and so keeping them cool requires massive AC systems.

The truth then is that we need AC not to just deal with the heat that mother nature delivers, but for all of the added heat we generate to run this complicated, data-centric world that we now live in.

I guess we should rejoice in the fact that air conditioning has made life so livable for so many. However, it also adds to our need for firm electrical service. You don’t need AC just when the sun is out or the wind is blowing…you need it on a 24-7 basis. That requires electrical “firm service” which today is largely provided through natural gas generation.

Air conditioning has revolutionized the world that we live in, but a lot of energy is consumed in its use.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.


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