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Why We Need To Rethink Air Conditioning

When the temperature rises, we turn the air conditioner on straight away — and drive our electricity bills up in the process. Four Australian academics explain why our addiction to home cooling is causing a major problem.

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As the recent Energy White Paper and Senate Committee report confirm, Australia’s electricity prices are going up. The Productivity Commission states that they have risen by 50 per cent in real terms over the last five years, mainly due to the rising cost of poles and wires. In fact, around one quarter of retail electricity bills go towards meeting around 40 hours of critical peak demand each year.

So what are we doing during these 40 hours?

It is no coincidence that the penetration of domestic air-conditioners has almost doubled in a decade: over 70 per cent of us have one. Many Australians (at least in the southern states) still reserve the use of their air-conditioners for those very hot (or cold) days of the year — some 40 hours in total — when temperatures soar (or plummet). Air-conditioning use at these times creates much of the peak load that costly infrastructure is being built to cope with.

There is no denying that it gets hot in Australia. Temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius for several days in a row.

How then did Australians manage without air conditioning? Climate change might be causing more extreme temperatures and heat waves, but this alone doesn’t explain why, in a little over a decade, cooling an entire home has become the normal and necessary thing to do.

Australia’s situation is not unique. In many developed and developing nations around the world, air-conditioning is making its way into more and more homes and workplaces. Even countries like the UK are increasingly embracing the air-conditioner, despite being considered cold in comparison to Australia.

Policy makers are well aware of the financial and environmental costs of this recent and rapid spread of air-conditioning, and have focused their attention on improving the efficiency of air-conditioners and Australia’s housing stock, and delivering behaviour change initiatives that ask householders to turn their thermostats up (or down).

However, trends such as open-plan designs, the increasing size of residential floor space, central cooling installations, and changing house designs have often outweighed efficiency and behavioural improvements.

As prices continue to rise and pressure to act on climate change becomes paramount, it is a good time for policy makers to ask if the trend towards air-conditioning indoor spaces is necessary, desirable or even possible. Taking these questions seriously, where might we look for inspiration and alternatives?

Our research, respectively conducted in Australia and the UK, is asking those very questions. In Australia we have looked at alternatives, such as cooling bodies rather than the environments they inhabit, and turning public facilities, such as libraries and community spaces, into “cooling centres” during heat waves.

We have also studied and reviewed responses to dynamic peak pricing and rebates, where households are provided with an incentive or disincentive to reduce electricity during a four-hour peak period. In these situations the malleability of cooling practices is revealed, as householders turn to a range of other methods of cooling their homes and bodies.

In the UK we have found that air-conditioning is becoming established in different settings for different reasons. There is no one story of diffusion, nor is it always the case that air-conditioning is about keeping people cool.

In the hospitals and universities we studied, air-conditioning was introduced to maintain standard operating conditions required by other technologies including computers, server rooms, and the specialist equipment now packed into intensive care units.

By contrast, upmarket hotel rooms were increasingly likely to have air-conditioning not because of any sudden change in the climate, but because cooling has become associated with quality.

In the UK, cooling is not (yet) critical for peak load – heating is still more important. But the balance is changing, and is changing in a direction that implies increasing energy consumption, and increasing CO2 emissions as well.

As governments seek to address climate change and costly peak demand, it is timely to start thinking not only about efficiency and behaviour, but about different ways of managing the relation between indoor environments and the technologies and people they contain.

Yolande Strengers is Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. She receives funding from Australian electricity utilities for energy demand management research. Cecily Maller is Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University. She receives funding from the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (VicHealth) and has previously been funded by RMIT University’s Global Cities Research Institute. Elizabeth Shove is Professor, Sociology at Lancaster University. She receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council. Gordon Walker is Chair in Environment, Risk and Social Justice at Lancaster University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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