The high cost of air conditioning

One of the many challenges facing small island developing states is to devise ways that stretch the capacity of the electrical infrastructure.  And one of the great burdens placed on that infrastructure is the demand placed on it from air conditioning.

As incomes rise the demand for air conditioning accelerates.  One estimate predicts that consumption of energy for cooling could increase ten times by 2050.  For island nations and territories, where the cost of electricity often exceeds mainland prices by a factor of three or four or more, this is a sobering scenario. 

The problem in context

If an island nation is to grow sustainably it will need to find ways to ameliorate both the rising costs of electricity and the demands placed on the electrical grid from air conditioning.  The status quo won’t cut it.

The situation is made worse by modern lifestyles and work routines in which people have become accustomed to significantly lower office and home temperatures in warmer climates.  Granted, there are productivity gains to be realized from air conditioning, but at what cost?

The production of electricity is costly to begin with on islands since it is difficult to achieve economies of scale in a limited geographical area.  Most electrical generating plants on islands rely on diesel fuel that is escalating in price and expensive to transport.

Approximately 20 percent of total electrical output is required to power air conditioning worldwide.  In small island developing states the figure can easily reach 40 percent, especially in the tropics where tourism is a major economic driver, and where restaurants and retail establishments keep interior temperatures very low in order to entice the passing visitor to enter.

The ramifications of more and more air conditioning

As these economies grow the demands on the electrical grid increase, limiting capacity rather than stretching the ability of the infrastructure to adapt.  Further exacerbating the problem are construction techniques that seal homes and offices in order to trap the cool air.

While this may make for more efficient air conditioning it eliminates the historical use of natural ventilation, causing our bodies to become less adaptable to the rhythms of temperature throughout the day and year.

This need not be the case.  A study in Thailand, for example, found that office workers could readily acclimatize themselves to natural ventilation, therefore lessoning the need for air-conditioned interiors without sacrificing comfort.

This is the point at which modern expectations about conditioned air clash with traditional means of coping with warmer climates.  Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, suggests that, “once a country goes down the air-conditioned path, it is very hard to change course.”

Possible solutions

Other options are available, however.  Rather than conforming to restrictive professional dress codes, for instance, looser, lighter clothing is a perfectly acceptable alternative.

Efforts to develop low-energy means to control interior temperatures in warmer climates are being worked on in countries throughout the world.  These range from passive technologies to traditional technologies to a heavy reliance on renewable energy sources.

Cox argues that a greater reliance on our capacity to adapt to variable conditions is a sensible strategy to mitigate otherwise spiraling energy costs for air-conditioned spaces.

There are many alternatives available that would expand the capacity of our island electrical infrastructure – requiring high-efficiency air-conditioning, tighter construction of new structures, an all-out pursuit of renewable energy sources, or even rebuilding and retrofitting large numbers of existing structures for non-refrigerated cooling.  But the price can be high.

Doing nothing, though, continuing to accept things the way they are, is not sustainable – economically or environmentally.

What have you done to lessen your reliance on air conditioning?  Do you even think this is a major problem?  And how might we use traditional island cultures to limit our growing reliance on air-conditioned spaces?


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