As the planet warms, air conditioning could outpace power supplies


As climate change drives temperatures higher, Californians could go without air conditioning for about a week every summer because cooling demands exceeded the grid’s capacity, a new study has found.

Researchers say the state could reach that muggy mark by the early 2030s if energy infrastructure or air conditioning efficiency are not improved, when the global average temperature is expected to rise 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

If that happens, residents can expect more power outages, like those seen during the grueling August 2020 heatwave, or even longer outages like those following severe winter storms that battered Texas in February 2021, according to the published study’s authors Earth’s Future, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

The researchers predicted an even larger increase in days without air conditioning in some Southern and Midwestern states. The researchers predicted an average of 13.9 days for Missouri and 13.5 days for Illinois.

“I really hope that from a citizen perspective, people will participate in the study and realize that there are local impacts of climate change,” said lead author Renee Obringer, an environmental engineer at Penn State University. “Whether you live in Florida, Washington or Ohio, it will affect you personally and individually.”

Statewide, Californians can expect an average of 6.8 days per year without air conditioning under this scenario, she said. The number is an aggregate reflecting both the cooler northern reaches of the state and the warmer, drier southern parts, she said.

“For example, if we could go in and break the state up into different climate zones or regions, we could see that LA potentially has a higher number of days without air conditioning than San Francisco,” Obringer said.

An increase in heat-related blackouts is likely to result in increased mortality, with the impact hitting more vulnerable communities, including those who are poorer, older and non-white, the authors said.

The findings align with an investigation by the Los Angeles Times, which found extreme heat in California has likely caused 3,900 deaths over the past decade — six times the state’s official tally — and that undercounting contributes to a lack of urgency contributed to overcoming the crisis. The impact of these worsening heatwaves is disproportionately hitting the poor and communities of color, the series noted.

“It’s a pretty clear warning to all of us that we can’t carry on business as usual, or our energy system will collapse in the next few decades just because of summer air conditioning,” the statement said Suzanne Benz, geographer and climate scientist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Benz was not involved in the study.

Research has shown that marginalized communities are often exposed to more intense temperature extremes because of the way housing is built, and they are more likely to have comorbidities that can exacerbate those inequalities due to increased exposure to pollution and pollutants, Obringer said.

“All of these things come together to ultimately mean that our most vulnerable people are hit first, and often that’s not a choice they could make,” she said. “It’s just how our cities are ultimately designed that has led to these extreme vulnerabilities.”

The study shocked 51-year-old Myrna Rivas. She knows all too well the stress and anxiety that comes with power outages.

Rivas lives in a trailer park in an area of ​​Riverside County that experiences frequent power outages in the summer. The outages, she said, have lasted anywhere from a few hours to at least three days in recent years.

She said these are stressful times for her. She worries that the food in the fridge will spoil. Above all, she worries about her 86-year-old mother, whose bed and medical equipment need electricity.

“Anything that helps her breathe and eat is powered by electricity,” Rivas said. “I’d have to either visit my sister or rent a hotel so I could have access to electricity if it went out for a week.”

She said the only bright spot in all of this is that her mother may not live long enough to see such extended blackouts.

In the United States, researchers predicted an 8 percent increase in demand for air conditioning in the summer with warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. If the average global temperature rises 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels — which is likely to happen by the end of the century if no action is taken to halt warming — demand across the country would fall even more dramatically to 13 % increase , you found.

“I was surprised at the difference between the 1.5 and 2 degree temperature thresholds, particularly in the Midwest,” Obringer said. “We may see a tripling of air conditioning that we would use even just half a degree more.”

For example, researchers in Indiana and Ohio predicted a 4% increase in demand for a 1.5 degree Celsius warming. At 2 degrees Celsius, that would rise to 12%, she noted.

“It really underscores the importance of maintaining a lower temperature threshold when possible,” Obringer said.

The study also looked at how much each state would need to improve the efficiency of home air conditioning to offset demand from rising temperatures. California performs well on this metric and would only need a 0.7% increase in efficiency to accommodate a 2-degree increase without increasing demand, they found. For comparison, Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma would require a 7.8% increase in efficiency.

California, which requires new developments to have energy-efficient air conditioning and retrofits some older buildings with it, leads the nation when it comes to those requirements, Obringer said.

“It shows that it is possible to improve the efficiency of air conditioning systems and to regulate and encourage this through policies,” she said. “Whether other states will adopt that is another story.”

It’s also possible states could build electrical capacity to avoid disruption, she said.

“What we’re hoping with our research is that if we can model what might happen, we can start putting some safeguards in place so that we can generate power at this higher demand, whether it’s by increasing storage or by scale-out.” of solar energy and wind or just looking at what we can do to improve our use or even promote conservation,” she said. As the planet warms, air conditioning could outpace power supplies

Tom Vazquez

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