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Vicious cycle: As we cool ourselves, we heat the planet

We can’t do away with air conditioners, but we can improve their performance, move to sustainable chemical refrigerants and increase the energy efficiency of buildings. 

AC outside

I have a confession to make. My household’s electricity consumption doubled during the first three months of the pandemic. 

And the data show my house isn’t the only one: During the first few months of the nation’s stay-at-home orders, home energy use was up 30 percent during midday. The increase was especially pronounced during the workweek, when people used to be at school or work. And that was before the start of this hot, hot summer

Summer months are the most taxing on the electric grid. With climate change making summers hotter, people crank air conditioners higher — which causes more heat-trapping emissions that fuel higher temperatures. It’s been a vicious cycle; as we cool ourselves, we heat the planet.

This issue has been growing for years. But, as with many things about this never-ending real-life "Black Mirror" episode we’re living, the coronavirus has exacerbated and accelerated the problem. Simply, the residential grid isn’t prepared for a sustained increase in energy demand from the record number of people cooling themselves at home.

So let’s take a long, cool look at what sectors can be doing today to get in front of the cooling conundrum. 

The utility plan: grid flexibility

Grid flexibility and demand response are a high priority for utilities working to optimize energy loads to use more clean energy. COVID is adding additional pressure to this transition as utilities look for new ways to ensure reliability and avoid outages

Utilities across the country partner with smart home technology companies — such as Google Nest, OhmConnect and Tesla Energy — to increase residential demand response participation. 

According to Surya Panditi, head of Enel X North America, deploying flexible solutions has the added benefit of creating new value streams for utilities and companies.

"Clean energy management solutions like utility-run demand response programs and battery storage systems can provide utilities with the fast flexibility needed to manage rapidly changing energy shifts as the pandemic continues to impact the country," said Panditi in an email. "These clean solutions aim to generate value for participating businesses, while also providing relief on the electrical grid and reliability to the millions of consumers looking to keep their lights on."

With climate change making summers hotter, people crank air conditioners higher — which causes more heat-trapping emissions that fuel higher temperatures.

While the economic uncertainty from the crisis may make customers hesitant to invest in energy upgrades, it’s time for utilities and regulators to get creative to ensure reliability and affordability. 

Many utilities suspended service disconnections for nonpayment during the pandemic. As the crisis drags on, those suspensions are ending, which could lead to a "tidal wave" of power shutoffs that disproportionately will affect low-income and minority communities already on the financial brink. This is more than an inconvenience; this is dangerous. Extreme heat can kill and has killed. NAACP calls addressing utility shutoffs a "human rights matter."

The commercial plan: more distributed energy resources

For companies with buildings still zapping energy or with locations that have reopened, more energy resources will help relieve the grid and help keep energy bills low — and add welcomed resilience. 

Extreme weather, such as wildfires and hurricanes, are expected to lead to more planned and unplanned power outages. As California businesses learned last year during the nation’s largest planned power outages to reduce wildfire risks, losing power costs companies a lot of money. For businesses limping through this pandemic, additional business disruptions could be the death knell.

The good news is on-site energy systems are increasingly cost-effective. Analysis from Rocky Mountain Institute shows the falling cost of batteries coupled with better energy management technologies often make the payback period of solar-plus-storage shorter than solar alone.

"Battery storage, especially when paired with solar, gives commercial customers the ability to generate, store and consume low-cost solar power strategically and can significantly reduce energy costs," Pandit explained. "The ability to participate in energy market programs makes the business case more compelling."

Further, utilities are working to deploy more behind-the-meter storage, especially in locations vulnerable to extreme weather. Marin Clean Energy, a community choice aggregator in Northern California, recently announced one such program designed to deploy 15 megawatt-hours of batteries in its territory, which was affected by the Tubbs Fire in 2017.

AC with remote

The global plan: fixing air conditioners 

While immediate energy demands in the U.S. require immediate action, the cooling conundrum is a global challenge. A report from the United Nations, out last week, forecasts that the combination of the warming earth will make demand for cooling appliances (air conditioners, refrigerators and freezers) quadruple by 2050. Right now, we’re adding 10 cooling devices a second.  

Air conditioners are a one-two punch to the climate. First, they’re energy-intensive — especially the cheap units proliferating in developing countries, which tend to run off of dirty energy grids. Second, many still use hydrofluorocarbons, a potent and short-lived greenhouse gas that experts say banishing is essential to curb global warming. 

We can’t do away with AC; it is essential to public health, productivity and quality of life. Instead, the U.N. recommends increasing the efficiency of air conditioners (which has the added benefit of decreasing energy bills and relieving the grid), moving to sustainable chemical refrigerants (which most of the world committed to last year with the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol) and increasing the energy efficiency of buildings. 

Both utilities and companies have a role to play here. The U.N. encourages the private and public sector to aggregate demand for efficient cooling equipment and utilities to incentivize climate-friendly air conditioners. 

If adopted, the U.N. says the world could avoid the equivalent of up to 460 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions. And that’s pretty cool.

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