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.
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.
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