The air conditioning trap: how cold air is heating the world

(The Guardian, 29 Aug 2019) The warmer it gets, the more we use air conditioning. The more we use air conditioning, the warmer it gets. Is there any way out of this trap? By Stephen Buranyi.

n a sweltering Thursday evening in Manhattan last month, people across New York City were preparing for what meteorologists predicted would be the hottest weekend of the year. Over the past two decades, every record for peak electricity use in the city has occurred during a heatwave, as millions of people turn on their air conditioning units at the same time. And so, at the midtown headquarters of Con Edison, the company that supplies more than 10 million people in the New York area with electricity, employees were busy turning a conference room on the 19th floor into an emergency command centre.

Inside the conference room, close to 80 engineers and company executives, joined by representatives of the city’s emergency management department, monitored the status of the city power grid, directed ground crews and watched a set of dials displaying each borough’s electricity use tick upward. “It’s like the bridge in Star Trek in there,” Anthony Suozzo, a former senior system operator with the company, told me. “You’ve got all hands on deck, they’re telling Scotty to fix things, the system is running at max capacity.”

Power grids are measured by the amount of electricity that can pass through them at any one time. Con Edison’s grid, with 62 power substations and more than 130,000 miles of power lines and cables across New York City and Westchester County, can deliver 13,400MW every second. This is roughly equivalent to 18m horsepower.

On a regular day, New York City demands around 10,000MW every second; during a heatwave, that figure can exceed 13,000MW. “Do the math, whatever that gap is, is the AC,” Michael Clendenin, a company spokesman, told me. The combination of high demand and extreme temperature can cause parts of the system to overheat and fail, leading to blackouts. In 2006, equipment failure left 175,000 people in Queens without power for a week, during a heatwave that killed 40 people.

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The Guardian, 29 Aug 2019: The air conditioning trap: how cold air is heating the world