Why the U.S. Relies So Much on Air Conditioning

ItYou likely felt extreme heat if you visited the U.S. during summer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded the 3rd hottest July since 1936, which was the hottest year. 2012 was the hottest. The heat wave that swept across the nation saw eight states experience July temperatures among their highest-five, including Texas which experienced its hottest July in history.

The 2022 year is not an anomaly, but more of a step in the upward climb of temperatures caused by global climate changes. People in America are increasingly relying on their home cooling systems to adapt. These provide some relief, but come at significant financial and environmental costs. Here are five charts that illustrate the country’s paradoxical reliance on air conditioning.

1. Nearly everybody is now cooling their homes

The U.S. had historically been home to one of the greatest levels of domestic air conditioning usage in the entire world. This continues to rise. The number of Americans who have air conditioners in their homes increased from 77% in 2001 to 88% by 2020. This makes it almost universal, according to the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) survey data. The majority of cooling systems installed in homes, such as central ACs or heat pumps, are fixtures. However, adoption is dependent on the era of construction: only 83% have AC in homes built prior to 1950, while 93% are built after 2010.

Regional differences exist, too. The historically warm Pacific coast is where most homes do not have AC. Even though rolling heat waves of multiple days are common in this climate, newer construction is making things better. 66% of the homes constructed there in 2010 have AC, while 39% were built prior to 1950.

2. AC-equipped Americans like their houses to be chilly

AC in American households is much more prevalent than European counterparts. This could be due to the fact that cool air was always a requirement in certain areas of the U.S. such as the Southwest desert and the humid South. In countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, less than 5% of homes in each country have AC, according to a 2018 report from the International Energy Agency—even despite the intense heat waves that have recently sizzled those countries.

But Americans don’t just have greater access to residential AC. They also have a tendency to blast it, including when they’re not at home. According to a TIME analysis of 2015 statistics from EIA, the most recent data available, the average temperature was set to 74°F when no one was home. That average dropped closer to 70°F when someone was at home, and at night time. The U.S. Department of Energy has previously suggested that summertime thermostats be set to 78°F during at-home hours and 82°F at night, but later clarified that the guidance was less about setting a strict number and more about illustrating that it’s more energy efficient to bump the temperature up about 4°F at night and 7°F when away from home.

Continue reading: It’s unbearably hot in summer before they even start

But a deeper look at the EIA data suggests that Americans aren’t universally heeding that advice. Individual ACs like portable and window units tend to change the temperature setting depending on when they’re home and what time it is. Central air conditioners on the other side are less likely to adjust the temperature frequently and set it once.

AC running so often, so aggressively, and so inexplicably can lead to several issues. For one, it increases demand on the electrical grid, which can trigger outages; Texas’s grid facility requested in July that residents limit AC and other major appliances amid peak record demand. What’s worse, AC units contribute to global warming by putting heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The coolant’s hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can escape when AC units reach the end of its life. This is why states began to eliminate them even before last year’s announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency. Utility companies that power AC units indirectly contribute to carbon dioxide emissions, as they rely heavily on fossil fuels for electricity generation.

3. Americans are unable to afford it.

There is financial pain where there is cooling relief. Powering an AC doesn’t come cheap, and for many, it’s downright unaffordable. EIA estimates that 34 million U.S. homes (27%) would not be able to meet their annual energy consumption in 2020. According to EIA, 20% said they had reduced how much medicine or food they bought to pay for their energy bills and 10% stated that their home was too warm due to safety concerns. A disconnection notice was sent to 10% of the utility companies, although this may not have been as high as in previous years due to temporary pandemic shutoffs.

The higher cost of natural gas that power plants use, meant households felt the pinch long before this summer. Government statistics for June show that the average price of residential electricity was 15.42¢ per Kilowatt-hour that month, up from 13.85¢ a year earlier, an increase of 11%. The chart below illustrates that prices rose more than 20% in some areas of the United States.

Lagging government statistics don’t fully capture the affordability problem. Bloomberg says otherwise. BusinessweekThe National Energy Assistance Directors Association reports that more than 20,000,000 American households (roughly one out of six) have fallen behind in their utility bills. This is according to NEADA, an association representing state governments and working to get federal funds for energy assistance programs. What’s more, NEADA reports that the average cost for summer cooling between June and September was about $450 last year and is expected to be about $600 this year.

4. Protections can be temporary or scattered.

LIHEAP is the federal funding program that provides assistance for states in energy. The Biden Administration more than doubled that program’s $3.8 billion appropriated funding for 2022 to $8.3 billion through a provision in the American Rescue Plan that allowed families to pay past-due bills as well as current bills. The extra money runs out on Sept. 30, 2022, and next year’s funding will be back down to about $4 billion unless Congress increases it.

All states, except Hawaii, prohibit the shut off of utilities for residents of medically vulnerable households who have fallen behind with payments. Some states have special conditions that apply to households with children and elderly. There are different protections for utility shutoffs in the United States. LIHEAP data shows 41 states, Washington, D.C., provide blanket protection from shutting down utilities in extreme cold weather, while 16 states, Washington, D.C., do not offer such blanket protections for hot weather.

According to Mark Wolfe, executive director of the NEADA, lack of protections aren’t the source of the shutoff problem (affordability is), nor are protections an end-all solution for struggling customers (because the bill doesn’t go away, and customers can get their power cut off right after a heatwave and then not get it reinstated before the next one hits, he says). These protections can be vitally important during extreme heat, which can lead to and worsen serious health problems.

Continue reading: Climate experts are testing new ways to reach the most affected by extreme heat

“States decide how to allocate the funds during the course of the year,” Wolfe says. “And up to recently, states used about 85% of the money they get for heating. The problem is, we only have enough money to reach one of every six eligible households, and on top of that, we don’t have enough to help with heating and cooling bills.”

5. But, change is slowly happening.

Inflation Reduction Act, recently passed, offers tax credits and financial incentives to low-income households who make their homes more efficient and better insulated. That’s a step in the right direction to optimize cooling in an ever-warming world. But Wolfe says those incentives may not reach low and middle-class households that likely can’t afford the up-front costs.

Below is a chart that shows how utility costs have risen for all. However, those with lower incomes feel the effects more as they are required to pay a higher percentage of their income in order to maintain power. Utilities often offer special payment plans. However, these are best if residents don’t have the time to pay extra for expensive seasons. High energy bills in summer and winter are increasing, which leaves customers less money.

“As we think about adapting to rising temperatures, we’re thinking a lot about infrastructure like sea walls and train tracks, which cost hundreds of billions of dollars,” says Wolfe. “The other piece is, how do we help protect the families from rising temperatures?”

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