The looming threat of blackouts cannot solely be
blamed on the vulnerabilities of power generation
and distribution. As growing consumer demand
increases our dependency, we must consider a crisis of
overconsumption. While calling our relationship to air
conditioning an addiction may seem an overstatement,
once acclimatized to it, research shows that people are
reluctant to give it up.
Like diesel generators, air conditioning offers solutions
to private problems that create larger collective ones.
As they cool and dehumidify domestic and commercial
spaces, they heat the wider environment and are linked
to ozone depletion. The US is currently the “undisputed
champion” of air conditioning, accounting for 20% of all
domestic consumption and 13% of commercial. (That
equates to the entire African continent’s electricity
demand.) And it is expected to grow a further 22% over
the next two decades.
This of course adds an additional burden on utility
companies that are being pressured to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions.
But the real growth will occur elsewhere. Air
conditioning already constitutes 20% of overall Chinese
consumption, where household ownership of air
conditioners tripled in the decade to 2007. India shows
a similar pattern: sales are growing at 20% per annum.
Global air conditioning demand has the potential to
exceed that of the US by a factor of 50.
The first planetary study of residential demand for
heating and cooling paints an alarming picture.
Researchers state that world demand for heating will
rise until 2030, then stabilize. By contrast, demand for
air conditioning will rise rapidly to 2100, mostly as a
function of rising prosperity. Moreover, demographic
trends suggest more people will live in the tropics, where
cooling demand will increase - along with its cost. As
a consequence, demand for cooling will be 40 times
greater in 2100 than it was in 2000. Another study
predicts between 18 and 25% less cold weather per
annum in four decades, and 17-23% more hot weather.
This will equate to a 65-72% increase in cooling demand.
Technical efficiency gains may partially offset this.
However, between 1940 and 2001, refrigeration
efficiency increased by just 10%, while refrigeration
demand grew by double that amount. Similar figures
apply to heating and cooling.
So serious questions have to be asked at both the
individual and collective level, concerning what is
wanted and what is needed, balancing what is good
for individuals with what is good for others and for the
environment we all share.
This article was extracted from a white paper titled
Blackouts: A sociology of electrical power failure
originally published by the Social Space Scientific Journal.
Read the full paper here. http://goo.gl/et9vck