Archive for June, 2009

It’s summer – bundle up!

June 30, 2009

It’s 90 degrees outside and we’re freezing.

coldhandsThere’s my co-worker J., shuffling past my office door draped in a heavy red wool blanket. Down the hallway sits B., wrapped in her blue poncho. Both brave the chilly office temperatures and wear summer dresses to work. (It’s June, after all.) But they also drink hot tea and coffee to warm their stiff fingers.

Even our tanned 20-something intern is cold. Every morning I watch her pull a cardigan from her bag before she even turns on her computer.

Air conditioning opened up the American South to northerners half a century ago and turned backward, sleepy cities such as Atlanta into metropolitan boom towns. 171-0609104401-phoenix_postcardIt transformed Singapore into an international business hub, made Phoenix livable, and millions of workers worldwide more productive.

Air conditioning also gobbles up 5 percent of all electricity produced in the United States, accounting for as much as 15 percent of energy consumption in homes and one-fifth or more of energy used in commercial buildings, depending on latitude. And here’s the sobering part: The commercial sector – schools, office buildings, malls, movie theaters and so on – are accountable for an ever-growing share of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions as their consumption of energy from dirty power plants continues to grow.

coal plant_0In the United States, 87 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions are related to our energy consumption, with the commercial sector’s emissions growing faster than any other sector’s. So you’d think that somebody would suggest that we cancel the warm sweaters and blankets and turn up the thermostat a few degrees.

It’s not only about saving the Earth, by the way. Raising the indoor temperature from 73 to 76 degrees can shave nearly one-third off your air-conditioning bill during the summer months, according to Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based energy giant.

But, oh, no. When our office air conditioning system malfunctioned a few weeks ago, some people – mostly men in suits – complained that it was “sooo hot.” The truth is, as a society, we’ve become addicted to cool spaces.

Today, more than half of all home owners in the United States run their air conditioner all summer long, up from one-third of homes in 1981.

Even in Minnesota, they’ve gone crazy with air conditioning. Twenty years ago, one-quarter of homes in this northern state had no AC. Today, fewer than 10 percent do and peak energy demand has shifted from winter to summer. Hear Minnesota Public Radio’s report from the North Star State!

Sounds to me like we need to look to China for some leadership. Fshanghaiaced with energy shortages a few years ago, the city of Shanghai ordered office buildings not to set their thermostat below 26 degrees Celcius, or 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, in a democracy like ours where everybody has a say and very little gets accomplished policy-wise, you can forget 79 degrees.