Power demand from air conditioning could soon exceed total power supply in the United States

I had hoped to have my next bit of science fiction out today, but it’s just not there yet, so here’s something else instead.

One of the most long-standing cases for acting on climate change is the simple fact that the sooner we act, the cheaper and easier it will be. The reality is that avoiding any cost is simply not an option. Extreme weather events, rising sea levels, damage to crops and infrastructure – climate change costs money, no matter how you look at it. By delaying action as long as we have, we’ve entered the age of endless recovery. Any action we take to deal with climate change will now be impeded by ongoing efforts to rebuild from damage already done.

Unfortunately, the cost increase goes beyond that. A big reason for why it’s in our best interest to take action is that there are limits to the temperatures humans can withstand. On our current trajectory, it’s likely that for at least some days out of the year, many parts of the world will be too hot for humans to survive very long without some external means of cooling. These days, that often means air conditioning, which is already a pretty energy-intensive process. As temperatures continue to rise, AC units will have to work harder to achieve the same cooling, and more people are going to need to rely on it to get by. In short, it’s very possible that the power demands of air conditioning will soon exceed the amount of power being generated in the United States:

Climate change will drive an increase in summer air conditioning use in the United States that is likely to cause prolonged blackouts during peak summer heat if states do not expand capacity or improve efficiency, according to a new study of household-level demand.

The study projected summertime usage as global temperature rises 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) or 2.0 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, finding demand in the United States overall could rise 8% at the lower and 13% at the higher threshold. The new study was published in Earth’s Future, AGU’s journal for interdisciplinary research on the past, present and future of our planet and its inhabitants.

Human emissions have put the global climate on a trajectory to exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the early 2030s, the IPCC reported in its 2021 assessment. Without significant mitigation, global temperatures will likely exceed the 2.0-degree Celsius threshold by the end of the century.

Previous research has examined the impacts of higher future temperatures on annual electricity consumption or daily peak load for specific cities or states. The new study is the first to project residential air conditioning demand on a household basis at a wide scale. It incorporates observed and predicted air temperature and heat, humidity and discomfort indices with air conditioning use by statistically representative households across the contiguous United States, collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2005-2019.

The new study projected changing usage from climate influence only, and did not consider possible population increases, changes in affluence, behavior or other factors known to affect air conditioning demand.

“We tried to isolate just the impact of climate change,” said Renee Obringer, an environmental engineer at Penn State University and lead author of the new study. “If nothing changes, if we, as a society, refuse to adapt, if we don’t match the efficiency demands, what would that mean?”

Technological improvements in the efficiency of home air conditioning appliances could supply the additional cooling needed to achieve current comfort levels after 2.0 degrees global temperature rise without increased demand for electricity, the new study found. Increased efficiency of 1% to 8% would be required, depending on existing state standards and the expected demand increase, with Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma on the high end.

“It’s a pretty clear warning to all of us that we can’t keep doing what we are doing or our energy system will break down in the next few decades, simply because of the summertime air conditioning,” said Susanne Benz, a geographer and climate scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who was not involved in the new study.

Exceeding capacity

The heaviest air conditioning use with the greatest risk for overloading the power grid comes during heat waves, which also present the highest risk to health. Electricity generation tends to be below peak during heat waves as well, further reducing capacity, Obringer said.

Without enough capacity to meet demand, energy utilities may have to stage rolling blackouts during heat waves to avoid grid failure, like California’s energy providers did in August 2020 during an extended period of record heat sometimes topping 117 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We’ve seen this in California already — state power suppliers had to institute blackouts because they couldn’t provide the needed electricity,” Obringer said. The state attributed 599 deaths to the heat, but the true toll may have been closer to 3,900.

The consequences of cascading electrical grid failures are likely to impact already vulnerable populations, including low income, non-white and older residents, first, Obringer noted.

“When they say there’s going to be two weeks where you don’t have cooling on average — in reality, some people will have cooling. Disadvantaged people will have less cooling,” Benz said.

How long are we going to wait to take this seriously? How many people will have to suffer and die in the heat? We know what we need to do. We need to update the power grid. We need to invest in home energy efficiency, and in passive cooling wherever we can use it. We also need to have sources of power – like wind and solar – that don’t need to be shut down during heat waves, when the need for cooling can be a matter of life or death. As I’ve said before, science is a way for us to see what’s coming, but a warning is no good if it’s not heeded.

We are running out of time.

Thank you for reading. If you find my work interesting, useful, or entertaining, please share it with others, and please consider joining the group of lovely people who support me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. Life costs money, alas, and owing to my immigration status in Ireland, this is likely to be my only form of income for the foreseeable future, so if you are able to help out, I’d greatly appreciate it. The beauty of crowdfunding is that even as little as $1 per month (that’s like three pennies a day!) ends up helping a great deal if enough people do it. You’d be supporting both my nonfiction and my science fiction writing, and you’d get early access to some of the fiction and some other content.


  1. StevoR says

    Temperatures not just too high for unassisted human survival – for plant and animal survival too.. which will then have some major flow-on effects.

  2. says

    One of the most depressing aspects of this for people who like nature, that. A lot of species have restricted range. One nasty heatwave could drive dozens of species in such an area to extinction within days. I really have to regulate my head when dealing with these issues.

  3. klatu says

    For those feeling depressed, I can only recommend the power of death (or a dead artist’s power, anyway):

    This is a real mood, in the face of apocalypse.

    (Dead people rule, man. You can’t reasonably argue with them, anyway. Just enjoy.)

    We are running out of time.

    Well, that’s where I’m going to have to fundamentally disagree.

    We are already way out of time.

    Literally anything we do from this point onward is no longer prevention. It is mitigation. We already live in the worst of all worlds. Climate breakdown, climate disaster, climate hell, whatever you want to call it, it is going to murder billions now. There is simply no way around that. Not any more. We (humanity, that is) had the chance to avert a worst case scenario and we instead decided to piss into the wind.

    What is the prediction now? 4 degrees? 4 Degrees is hell. 4 Degrees means barbarism before hell takes place (it will take place either way, given enough scarcity). 4 Degrees is a promise: Dear grandchildren, your lives will suck. Sorry. My bad, your dear uncle Capital.

    So… what to do? Nothing, really. There are two options, in general:

    1.) Hegemony
    Treat your tribe as sacred. Provide only for them. Hate/dominate everyone else. Everyone else is your competitor/enemy. Capitalism to the bitter end. Race to the bottom (This option sucks.)
    This is the path practically every government on Earth is taking right now. It’s not going have much of a positive effect.

    2.) Resignation
    I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it as an ideological stance: Resign you wealth. Stop using things. Accept that smarphones should actually cost upwards of 10000 USD$. Accept that a car should cost 500.000 USD$. If you actually factor in environmental after-effects and their costs.
    Be rational. No more luxury. No more vacations. The western world has to down-grade, massively.

    This will never happen, so Hegemony it will be. Trumps and Putins and Pings will expend incredible wealth in order to build useless little empires that mean nothing in the face of physics.

    That’s actually the upside to all of this. The quicker humanity manages to eraticate its own terraforming potential, the quicker the rest of nature will get to recover. Interpret that as you will.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    “How long are we going to wait to take this seriously?”

    Until someone can convince the 1% that there’s a way of fixing it that will make them richer, not poorer, NOW, not later. Without that in place, nothing will be done.

  5. says


    I agree to some extend that we’re out of time, and with much of your assessment. That said, the only path I see to humanity “eradicating it’s own terraforming potential” wouldn’t leave much of nature left to recover. Beyond that, even if everyone magically agreed to de-industrialize, it would just reset the clock, and humanity would have to deal with the same problems all over again.

    As to what technology “should” cost, I find it very hard to tell, because so much of it is in service to enriching those at the top. That includes the abuse and exploitation of workers and people who’ve been enslaved, but it also includes stuff like planned obsolescence. Likewise, things like the beef industry are driven by profit rather than need, and that in turn drives a lot of deforestation, etc. I’m not sure we have a clear idea of what our resource consumption would look like if we made sustainability a societal priority in the way that profitability is now.

    I don’t think that it’s as simple as letting things continue to their “end” and then “nature will recover”. It seems more likely that if we don’t do the hard thing and find a way to change course, most of the “nature” we currently recognize will go extinct with us.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    From the linked article:

    The new study is the first to project residential air conditioning demand on a household basis …

    Household, schmousehold: how about institutional A/C? Most offices, factories, etc, run giant cooling systems and could not be occupied for very long without them. Many, particularly food processing plants, hospitals, and nursing homes, seriously need to stay at lower temperatures to prevent the growth of mold, bacteria, and insect populations.

  7. says

    It’s not just air conditioning, it’s food refrigeration systems. Grid collapses that cause large food supplies to rot are going to further stress out the system.

  8. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    I already knew that Klatu wanted to de-industrialize more or less, but I was uncertain about your position in the matter. I guess I’ll be saving this link for the future if you ever want to try to deny that you believe that there are no technological fixes and there are no fixes except for massive reductions in standard of living for the industrialized countries. I recall you being sneaky about this before. I will try to not let you be sneaky in the future.

    I just don’t get why we don’t listen to the scientists, and why we just don’t go nuclear. That is a technological fix, which, when combined with a few other technological fixes that depend on clean, cheap, abundant energy, can let us fix our mess of anthropogenic climate change. Sigh.

  9. says

    @Gerrard – I don’t know why you were uncertain. I’ve been consistent for YEARS that I don’t think de-industrialization is the right way to go. This isn’t the first time I’ve wondered if you actually read my material, but you’ve previously stated that you “read everything”.

    I also repeatedly say that I don’t think it’s a technical problem, because I believe we already have most of the technical solutions we need – certainly enough to get to work right now. It’s a political problem because the obstacles to action are political, not technical.

    As I’ve also said, we don’t “just go nuclear” because of the politics. Even if your approach was 100% the right one, it’s still a political problem. That’s also why I’ve pointed out to you specifically that a lot of what I’m focused on in that regard would also work for YOU to advance YOUR goals.

    And the reason I don’t just go with whatever Hansen thinks would fix everything is because having expertise in climate science doesn’t mean having expertise in sociology and/or politics.

    The only version of me that’s been “sneaky” about this seems to exist in your head, rather like your version of me that’s massively influential. This is not the first time it’s felt like you’re projecting your larger frustrations with environmentalism over the last few decades onto me personally.

  10. says

    @Pierce – for one thing, I feel like a lot of offices don’t need to exist. As long as we have the internet, there are a lot of jobs that – if they actually need doing – can be done from home, so that’s one way to conserve at least some energy.

  11. Jeffrey Morton says

    No power for our A/C units? Then where’s the power coming from for electric cars?

  12. klatu says

    Sorry for this necro-post…


    Look, Gerrard of whatever-the-heck isn’t exactly wrong when he(? i assume, please correct me) claims that I’m in favour of de-industrialization.

    But I think he misundestands my thesis. I’m not in favour of it. I just think it’s inevitable.

    I think an inordinate amount of human suffering is awaiting us. I’m not for it. I’m very much against it. (Is that clear enough, Gerrard of WTF?)

    At our current trajectory of human development, we are looking at billions dead because that’s just the cost of doing business. We are all, willingly or not, ushering in a world that is breaking down on a physical level, a world that is bursting at the seams. I–ultimately–don’t care about the nature of the solution, be it “green” or nuclear. Gerrard insists on nuclear power. Fine. Whatever. Literally a thousand climate scientist disagree with him, but maybe they’re all wrong and Gerrard is right. Whatever.

    My concern is not with whether we can do this. To me, this is a an answered question. We can’t. We have proven it a million times over. We’re beyond that. It’s too late. Physics is now simply happening.

    Which means that de-industrialization is GOING to happen. A massive breakdown of society is GOING to happen. The oh-so-awful fall of western civilization is GOING to happen. Physics demands it. The only question–really–is how awful that transition is going to be. We can either go into the twilight peacefully, or we can be genocical dipshits along the way.

    That’s what I’m afraid of. Barbarism where it need not be.

    To make my position clear:
    Yes, once massive societal breakdown kicks in, we should accept it. We should accept that we can’t out-grow entropy. That’s it. That’s my thesis.

    But hey, GOT, please keep preaching to FTB people about the superiority of nuclear power plants. I can’t wait to see your results. If the number of
    new reactors built because of your valiant efforts on some random message board is greater than zero, I will actually clap.

  13. says


    I sympathize with your gloomy outlook, but I do feel the need to remind you that I’m not willing to entertain doomerism on this blog. I agree that we’re in for a bad time, but the exact nature of that, and what the world looks like on the other side of that is still very much in flux.

    I also think you’re misusing the concept of entropy. Humans (all life, really) are agents of entropy. We break things down around us to live. That said, we do not live in a closed system, and we have the technical capacity for doing things very differently from how we do them now, without regressing to a pre-industrial state.

    My interest is in finding a path for humanity to thrive, and I’m not really open to “the world is ending and we should just let it”.

    The goal isn’t to “out-grow” anything, except in the philosophical sense. The goal is, for lack of a better term, a “post-industrial” society, not though abandonment of technology but through an abandonment of the irresponsibility, bigotry, and short-sightedness of the industrial era.

    I agree that there will be a period of needless death and barbarism, but the shape that takes, and what comes after is still very much in flux.

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