Stan Cox, Losing our Cool
The New Press
New York, 2010
[ This book is heavily referenced by page in a rear section of the book. ]
I suggest you buy or borrow the book to see these many references.
Some of the ills that follow in the wake of air conditioning - resource waste, climate change, ozone depletion and disorientation of the human mind and body - call for cures more complex than simply producing more energy-efficient devices or more atmospheric-friendly refrigerants. Air conditioning has also been an important tool in creating a society shot through with unsustainable trends: settlements of large human populations and fragile environments; an imbalance between indoor and outdoor life; buildings designed for dependence on high energy input; suburbanization, “masionization,” and the oversized car and commuter cultures; recklessly accelerated production and consumption; enhanced military power; and even the political shocks to this country in recent decades. None of those trends will be reversed overnight.
Undoing some of air conditioning harm could require no more than turning the switches to “off,” opening windows, and going outdoors. Other climate control dilemmas are now built so deeply into the structure of society that backing out will be much more difficult. But any energy strategy for the coming decades will be forced to deal with how we handle summer comfort. To ask hard questions about air conditioning need not raise specters of malaise, poor health, social turmoil, and economic collapse; besides, hazards like those are becoming a bit too familiar already.
Turning down or even turning off the flow of refrigerated air could improve our quality of life, but only if even bigger adjustments are made to the wider community and society. If that can be accomplished, we might find ourselves more relaxed, healthier, less stressed at work and happier at leisure. Children could have better lives of adults would worry less than social relations could grow warmer.
Wherever it lands, the big-house trend pushes up consumption. According to recent reports from Australia, where air conditioner sales are growing at a 10 percent annual rate, "peak demand was higher in so-called ‘energy-efficient’ housing developments than in normal housing developments. Many blamed this on the increased size of housing, the fashionable open-plan format, and central air-conditioning and heating." In the state of Victoria, a 30 percent increase in air-conditioned floor space has wiped out energy savings from a new, compulsory housing efficiency standard.
The prospect of resource savings might simply provide real estate agents with yet another pitch to induce home buyers to purchase more square footage; the buyer need only be told, "Hey, with this big, efficient house, you'll get a couple more rooms and you'll be heating and cooling them practically for free!" The old discount-store slogan "The more you spend, the more you save!" applies to home energy conservation as well. So, despite consuming far more total energy, the owner of a big, green house can boast of much bigger energy savings than the small-house owner. Green home builders' sales targets will tend to be more affluent buyers who can afford the more expensive materials and labor-intensive construction necessary to build nominally ecofriendly houses. Many such affluent buyers want their houses big.
Each generation of technology, from the vacuum tube to today's advanced processors, has handled more information per watt of energy input, but that efficiency has always been harnessed to push speed and output higher, not to conserve energy. The industry has produced tinier chips and bigger, denser, hotter arrays of chips every year. The lion's share of the wattage going to a data center's computing equipment comes out again as waste heat, so the total wattage consumed by computing is included when calculating the load on air-conditioning systems. Running and cooling a single six-foot-high rack of servers occupying 7 square feet of floor space can consume as much power as would 30 typical California homes. Thousands of such racks and rooms or buildings ranging into the hundreds of thousands of square feet can impose enormous cooling demands.
In line with the 1960s-era predictions, the computational power of a given size of silicon chip continues to double every eighteen months. That and other improvements have allowed the computing performance of servers to triple every two years. Without improvements in energy efficiency-the amount of information servers can process for a given input of electricity-the system would've melted down long ago from the heat generated by denser machines and the resulting growth of utility bills. Efficiency, out of necessity, has been greatly improved, but it is only doubled, not tripled every two years, thereby failing to keep up with energy consumption for running and cooling servers. It's not even close. In the brief period between 2000 and 2006, the amount of energy to process a given amount of information fell 88 percent, yet energy consumption for a given investment in data handling rose 300 percent. And the numbers and sizes of data centers have swelled.
The industry continues to invest in efforts to reduce heat output per quantity of information processed and to improve cooling technology. Where the limits of air cooling are approached, liquid cooling may become common. With the past and economic reality as guides, we can assume that an improved capacity to deal with heat stress will be used to expand computing power further rather than to reduce the industry's energy footprint.
Internet exponents claim that ever-bigger expenditures of energy are compensated for by the many resource efficiency gains that computers make possible. But such gains, where they have occurred, are overwhelmed by our general resource use. Her progress has been seen, economic contraction, not technology, was chiefly responsible:
- Electronic communications were expected to cut into paper use, but savings have been slow in coming. Paper consumption for all users in the United States had hit a peak of more than 700 pounds per person annually by the 1990s, a 25 percent increase over the pre-e-mail days of the 1970s. A 3 percent drop in pay-per-use in the 2000s may mean that computerization is finally having a small impact. But office printing technology gets better every year. Even if printed books, newspapers, and magazines were to disappear completely, would business in general really use decreasing quantities of paper in prosperous times?
- Online shopping was supposed to help limit the size of the climate-controlled, brick-and-mortar retail world and keep shoppers out of their air-conditioned cars. As we have seen, the reverse is happening; square footage of store parking lots and climate-controlled retail space per person continue to rise right up until the 2008 bust.
- It is widely anticipated that videoconferencing and telecommuting will substitute increasingly for business travel. But industry data show, aside from a short post-9/11 slump, U.S. business travel marched upward at a steady rate of 5 percent per year from 1990 through early 2008. Only the economy's plunge managed to stifle the urge for business-related flying and driving.
Overshadowing all of those issues, perhaps, is the Internet's capacity to stimulate more consumption that it eliminates. A big share of that energy going into running and cooling data centers is aimed at convincing Web users to consume more of everything, to convert more matter and energy into waste somewhere else. For example, revenues from Internet advertising almost quadrupled between 2002 and 2008. Another big share of the Internet's energy goes into processing the orders and payments stimulated by the ad; 25 percent of all traffic through search engines goes to retail sites.
The Mirage of Efficiency
Improving the energy efficiency of air conditioners and other devices is a widely discussed route to lower greenhouse emissions and reduced resource destruction. But benefits from efficiency can be elusive. For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in 2009 then improved efficiency in all kinds of electrical appliances is being televised by increased air-conditioning use:
Residential electricity use has increased by 23 percent over the past decade, as efficiency improvements have been more than offset by increases in air-conditioning use and the introduction of new applications. That trend continues…. In 2030, electricity use for home cooling in the reference case is 24 percent higher than the 2007 level, as the US population continues to migrate to the South and West, and older homes are converted from room air-conditioning to central air-conditioning.
Despite such setbacks, some environmentalists continue to predict positive ripple effects from technological efficiency. For instance, Hariharan Chandrashekar, the green-construction advocate in Bangalore, told me, "If people save money through efficiency, they can afford further green improvements, which will save even more money. You have to get into that virtuous circle." But environmental scientists Mario Giampetro and Kozo Mayumi have argued that economies, as "complex adaptive systems," are unlikely places for such virtuous circles to be generated, and that they defy analysis in terms of simple efficiency. The definitions of products being sold, bought, and used can change dramatically even over short periods, not only making it hard to even define "efficiency," but also giving economies a tremendous capacity to take advantage of efficiency improvements through expansion. Often those improvements are turned on their heads. Giampetro and Mayumi illustrate:
Looking at the evolution of cars in time, we can say that the introduction of more efficient car engines has determined that some features, such as air-conditioning, which were optional in the past became standard features of modern cars. Thus an increase in efficiency in one of the attributes of performance… has led to the addition of a new set of standard attributes in the definition of "what modern cars are and should be."
They observe that when any technical improvement in resource efficiency is achieved, a society has to choose how to take advantage of each increment of improvement: either to use a smaller quantity of resources (which includes putting a smaller burden on ecosystems) while maintaining the current material standard of living, or to increase the material standard of living at equal or higher resource use. They conclude that this question must be resolved through the political process. If an explicit political decision is not made, the latter option -- increasing per capita production and consumption -- will be adopted by default in a capitalist economy because of the imperatives of growth and wealth accumulation. That, of course, leads to expanding resource use.
Giampetro and Mayumi also observed that "to increase efficiency now, one has to eliminate obsolete solutions from the existing portfolio." In a world of limited resources, adopting a newer, more efficient technology can mean eliminating older solutions that might be needed later. Our cities, for example, are full of tight, energy-efficient buildings designed on the assumption of air-conditioning. They would be far less habitable than the "inefficient" buildings of earlier eras if natural ventilation were used instead.
A car's fuel efficiency is easily tracked using its odometer and the meters on gas pumps. The efficiency of cooling cars are buildings is not so simply estimated. Recall that in India, there are suspicions that energy-efficiency claims for air conditioners are being fudged, and even the most accurate estimates can be misleading. In the late 1990s Mithra Moezzi of the Lawrence Berkeley national laboratory summarize what he [sic] called "the prediction of efficiency" for household appliances. The problem, he wrote, is that when agencies confer efficiency rankings and awards, as the EPA does under its "Energy Star” program, they use the standard definition of high efficiency: more service delivered per unit of energy consumed. Products are ranked only against others of similar size with similar features, so appliances that use far more energy than more modest models are often declared, perversely, to be the most efficient. Thus, Moezzi noted, "an electric toothbrush may be labeled as efficient while a manual toothbrush will not be." He cited a "Golden Carrot" award bestowed by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency on a Whirlpool 22-cubic-foot side-by-side refrigerator that was more highly "efficient," but only when compared with other side-by-sides. But the side-by-side design (with the freezer compartment on one side and a refrigeration compartment on the other) is inherently inefficient compared with the traditional design, and large refrigerators have inherently higher energy requirements. Thus, the award-winning model's electricity consumption exceeded the maximum allowed for similarly sized freezer-on-top models under national standards. Moezzi also cited the 1997 "Your Energy Star Home" calendar, which came out during the rapid acceleration of U.S. house-size growth. Of the seven energy-efficient houses featured, four were larger than 3,800 square feet. As we have seen, any house of that size will use far more energy than an "inefficient" 1,500-square-foot house.
The problem persists. In 2008, it was revealed that two refrigerators with "French door" cooling compartments and freezers on the bottom-one made by Samsung, another by LG-qualified for Energy Star ratings only because they were allowed to be tested with their automatic ice makers turned off. Thus tested, each consumed at rates of under 550 kWh per year. But with the ice makers on, the Samsung used 890 and the LG a whopping 1,100 kWh per year. Even with the ice makers off, both Energy Star models were more power-hungry than some of the somewhat smaller but still capacious contemporaries that did not qualify as "efficient," such as page 22-cubic-foot freezer-on-top Maytag that had an annual energy use of only 448 kWh. Clearly, efficiency remains to heal-defined to be of much use in the consumer marketplace. From such contradictions, Moezzi concluded,
One of the difficulties in moralizing about energy consumption is that most energy, and thus most energy savings, is invisible at the point of use. Using labels as rewards for increased efficiency and as a means to convey information about "high-efficiency" systems is an attempt to make energy use and savings visible. This is a good strategy if the goal is to get consumers to buy, which is the foundation of a market-driven approach to energy efficiency. However, there may be some long-term danger in awarding ratings that imply environmental beneficence to activities that could hardly be considered environmentally beneficent…. Labels implying that energy efficiency leads to conservation are misleading if they cause people to buy more, or larger, products than they otherwise would have.
Luring customers, in effect, to purchase an energy-efficiency label in lieu of actual efficiency could turn out to be an even more clever moneymaking strategy today than it was in the 1990s when Moezzi wrote that. With society now placing increased emphasis on a green lifestyle, well-off people may buy seemingly efficient refrigerators or air conditioners not only out of a desire to save on future energy bills but also to strengthen the buyer's reputation as a responsible citizen -- a green version of conspicuous consumption. On the other hand, Lancaster University professor of sociology Elizabeth Shove views the routine use of air-conditioning in Western societies today as an example of "inconspicuous consumption" -- done for what is thought to be a necessary, practical purpose rather than simply to gain status. Therefore, she argues, decision-makers like to focus on efficiency instead: "in concentrating on efficiency rather than on consumption, policy makers stick close to it politically safe position, providing information and advice but not going so far as to tell consumers and decision-makers how to live their lives…. In effect, demand -- including demand for air-conditioning -- is taken for granted and so taken out of the equation." So consumption is free to rise right along with efficiency.
Manufacturers have made gains in air conditioner efficiency over the past thirty years. Residential central air-conditioning units in service in 2005 were impressive 28 percent more efficient on average than those in service in 1993, they sound their SEER (seasonal energy efficiency ratio). But the average household's air-conditioning system used 37 percent more energy in 2005 then 1993. (And because increasing numbers of houses were being air-conditioned, total energy rose to a level -- of 1993. See table 3.) Much-improved, more energy-efficient equipment was consuming a lot more energy per home. Federal standards were tightened in 2006, requiring that new equipment be another 30 percent more efficient. Should we expect another 30 percent increase in energy use as a consequence?
Economists have labored heroically over the past quarter-century to chelate evidence for or against this efficiency/consumption enigma, one that had been articulated in 1865 by economist William Stanley Jevons in his book The Coal Question. Having seen that major improvements in efficiency of coal-fired steam engines over the previous half-century had been accompanied by a rapid expansion of coal consumption, Jevons argued that improved efficiency of resource use will inevitably result in increased, not decreased, consumption. This seeming paradox came about, he wrote, because more efficiently produced goods can be produced more cheaply, which in turn increases both effective production capacity and demand, stimulating the entire economy.
Following the energy crisis of the 1970s and accelerating into the 2000s, economists started appearing more deeply into Jevons’s paradox, both theoretically and through analysis of real data. As a result, his simple proposition has been stretched into a more complex continuum featuring the concepts of "rebound" and "backfire." Suppose that technical improvements in air-conditioning mechanisms and/or better insulation allow homeowners to expend less electricity and cooling their houses. If they re-spend some of the savings that show up on their utility bills by turning the thermostat temperatures lower or running other appliances more often, total electric consumption won't fall as far as is suggested by the degree of efficiency improvement. That is called a rebound effect. If consumers really get carried away and end up using just as much electricity as they did before the efficiency improvements, 100 percent rebound has occurred. And if, as the Jevons paradox predicts, rebound surpasses 100 percent -- that is, if the total electric consumption actually increases -- that's backfire.
We saw an example of apparent backfire in the previous section: fast-rising power consumption to run in cool ever-more-efficient computer-network servers. If the air-conditioning is viewed strictly as a consumer good, it's not hard to imagine energy savings from more efficient manufacturing, greater operating efficiency, or more weather-tight buildings being at least partly canceled out by rebound. In India, where the market is far from saturated and electricity costs are high compared with the original investment in cooling equipment, more energy-efficient models could lead to more widespread adoption of A/C, and owners may decide to operate units for more hours per day. In the largely saturated U.S. market, high cooling efficiency could offset electricity price hikes and keep electricity consumption high when switching off appliances, opening windows, and using attic fans might otherwise have started looking more attractive. And because efficient climate control can be a powerful economic stimulus package, it could spur consumption throughout society at large.
Government programs for insulating the low-income homes in hot climates have run into strong rebound effects. A study published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2008 found that energy use for error-conditioning in south Texas homes was not significantly reduced through weatherization, partly because residents took advantage of the improvements by keeping their houses about two degrees cooler, on average, than they had done previously. Similarly, an experiment conducted by the Florida Power and Light company in the early 1980s measured the effects of three energy-saving technologies that the company provided free of charge to randomly chosen consumers: insulation, insulation plus a more efficient air conditioner, or insulation plus an efficient heat pump. A fourth group of customers received no improvements. The results showed that although "engineering models often assume that a given percentage improvement in thermal efficiency… will translate into an identical percentage reduction in electricity usage," that was not the case, because "homeowners will use their air conditioning and heating more intensively when the effective price of comfort is lower."
Rebound or backfire can be either prove or disprove theoretically, depending on the economic assumptions and models you use, on whether you stick to a single product or resource, and on whether you consider the entire economy or just a sector within it. Estimates based on actual data, usually limited to individual products and inputs have varied widely as well. You can find energy-rebound estimates of 0 to 50 percent for air-conditioning, 10 to 30 percent for heating, 10 to 40 percent for water heating, 5 to 12 percent for lighting, 65 percent for overall home electric use, 5 to 25 percent for home weatherization, and 5 to 50 percent per vehicle fuel consumption. Research is sparse but the mechanisms through which rebound can occur are easily imagined. For example, how do people respond to advice they are given a fluorescent bulbs: to use them primarily in fixtures that are turned on for several hours at a stretch and to leave them burning for at least 15 minutes before turning them off, all to prolong their life? Do we tend to keep them turned on longer each day that we do incandescent bulbs, thereby eating in to advertise energy savings? And to what degree can green efficiency with one resource latest to consume more of another? For example, do people with solar water heaters tend to takes longer showers? Will he advent of ozone-friendly, nongreenhouse refrigerants lead to some eco-conscious consumers to install a new air-conditioning system rather than considering less energy-intensive alternatives?
For none of those separate slices of the economy does 100 percent rebound or backfire appear to occur. Yet when modern economies are observed in their entirety, efficiency gains and rates of resource use almost always seem to march upward hand-in-hand, just so they did in Jevons’s day. That, say backfire believers, is because efficiency saves money and thereby expands the general power firms to produce enough people to consume. The entire system grows in response. Because our economy is designed to never leave a usable resource unused, higher consumption is inevitable. Economies as they operate today always behave as if Jevons’s paradox is true.
Over the years, mainstream economists have often denied the existence of the paradox despite real-world evidence of rebound and backfire. But the question of whether or not efficiency “causes" the increased consumption is best set aside as a subject of debate for university seminars. Resource efficiency on the scale of a household or company almost always benefits those who put it into practice, but that does not automatically conserve resources or protect ecosystems across the city, state, nation, or planet. Leonard Brookes, a British economist who shares credit for the modern incarnation of Jevons’s paradox -- known as the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate -- views energy efficiency as a distraction: "Maximizing energy efficiency has no particular merit as a national or international target. It is not a proxy for maximizing economic efficiency or social benefit or minimizing environmental damage. Pursuing it as a target entails bias that in turn leads to misallocation of available economic resources claims made for progress in pursuing it are often faulty."
Given no politically palatable alternative to growth, elected officials tend to gravitate toward energy-saving measures that acquire little or no sacrifice. That, of course, is also the kind of legislation that is least likely to save energy.