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Researchers Saying Growing Air Conditioner Adoption Could Cause an 83% Increase in Energy Usage

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As summer approaches, many people around the world will likely be making repairs to their air conditioners in anticipation of warmer weather, just as they will make furnace and home generator repairs in the fall. Some may even buy new air conditioning systems entirely. But while these changes will be a welcome relief in the coming months, experts say that it could become as big a problem as it is a solution. In a new study on AC adoption trends, researchers found that HVAC units are likely to boom over the rest of the century, potentially increasing residential electricity usage by 83%.According to a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, AC usage is a self-perpetuating problem: air conditioners require energy to run, which creates more greenhouse gases and in turn raises global temperatures, causing more people to buy and use their air conditioning units. Lucas Davis, an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the lead author of the paper, told The Verge that this would also create significant challenges for electricity systems, including generation and transmission, increasing energy costs. And now that developing countries are driving a considerable amount of AC growth, Davis says that this money will likely need to come from these nations.

Over the course of the study, Davis and his partner, UC Berkeley Business Professor Paul Gertler, looked at billing data from more than 25 million Mexican households to determine how temperature affected air conditioning use. They found that monthly electricity consumption rose 3.2% for every day the weather went above 90 degrees, compared to days between 65 and 70 degrees. They also analyzed how rising incomes around the world might lead to more households adopting air conditioning. While a look at 27,000 households showed that air conditioning remained near zero in cooler areas, regardless of increasing wealth, they found that AC ownership grew by 2.7% for every additional $1,000 in annual household income in warmer locations.

Despite this increase, Davis and Gertler only expect residential energy usage to increase around 15.4% by the end of the century. However, with the addition of new units, this rate rises to 83% , nearly double the amount of the total residential energy use overall, not just the amount used by air conditioners. Moreover, the researchers believe their findings could be global. This could lead to dramatic increases in carbon dioxide emissions, further fueling climate change.

Davis and Gertler’s study is similar to earlier studies that have researched increasing energy consumption, air conditioning and the potential impact these factors could have on the environment. In fact, some other researchers have speculated that increasing temperatures in colder areas could even out the effects of growing AC costs, as these areas would spend less money on heating. According to this theory, the increased energy consumption from air conditioners therefore wouldn’t hit for another 50 years. However, Davis points out that income growth could cause more people to buy their first air conditioners over the next 80 years or so, causing the rate of air conditioner ownership and electricity usage to increase even if temperatures remained the same.

Countries like Brazil, Mexico and China are expected to be the first sites of this increasing energy usage; air conditioner sales have already doubled in China over the last few years, with sales in 2013 reaching eight times the total sold in the U.S. Places like Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Indian are expected to follow suit in the years that follow.

However, Davis says that hope might not be lost: studies show that switching to high-efficiency air conditioners and taking other actions to keep your home cool could reduce energy use for air conditioning by 20% to 50%. This means that as both manufacturers and users put a greater priority on reducing their energy costs and carbon dioxide emissions, the 83% increase could falter, slowing the vicious cycle of global warming.

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