Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

With the weather getting warmer, I’ve been thinking about air conditioning. I know that ACs are getting more efficient, but more people are using them too. So, are we using more or less energy on cooling our homes than we used to? 

We had Harrison Katz and Ashley Junger from our Possibly team look into this question. Welcome, Harrison and Ashley!

Harrison Katz: Hi, Megan!

Ashley Junger: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, are we using more or less energy on air conditioning than we were in the past?

Harrison Katz: Good question! To find out, we have to pick a specific time in the past and compare it to today. 

Ashley Junger: Luckily, the United States Energy Information Administration conducts a lot of surveys on household energy use. 

Harrison Katz: The earliest survey that includes information on air conditioning and efficiency is from 1990, so we’ll start there.

Ashley Junger: And the most recent survey is from 2015, so we’ll compare those two years.

Megan Hall: So, that means we’re talking about a period of 25 years? 

Harrison Katz: Exactly. 

Megan Hall: Okay, let’s start with how many people have air conditioners. 

Ashley Junger: So, in 1990, about 70% of US households had some form of air conditioning system.

Harrison Katz: In 2015, that percentage was nearly 90%!

Megan Hall: So, about a 20% increase! And over that time, I’m assuming our population grew too? 

Harrison Katz: Yes. From 1990 to 2015, the population of the United States went up by nearly 30%, so that’s more people with more air conditioning units, on average.

Megan Hall: But, air conditioners are more efficient now, right? That has to count for something.

Ashley Junger: Right. The US Department of Energy has strict efficiency standards for electric appliances. 

Harrison Katz: Air conditioning units are rated based on something called a seasonal energy efficiency ratio, or SEER.

Ashley Junger: The SEER rating compares an air conditioning unit’s cooling abilities with the amount of electricity it uses per hour.

Megan Hall: And, have those ratings led to more efficient air conditioners? 

Harrison Katz: Yes. The average SEER rating doubled from 1990 to 2015, which means air conditioners became twice as efficient.

Megan Hall: So, we’ve got more air conditioners, but they use half as much energy? What’s the verdict? 

Harrison Katz: Well, there’s one more piece to the air conditioner equation we haven’t mentioned yet: how frequently we use them.

Ashley Junger: The average household in 2015 used their air conditioning system nearly twice as often as the average household in 1990. 

Harrison Katz: When you factor that in and crunch the numbers, that increase in usage really makes a difference. We use about 50% more energy on cooling our homes now than we did in the past. 

Megan Hall: 50% more! I would have thought the new standards would have saved us energy. 

Ashley Junger: Nope! And to put that number into context, home air conditioning systems use up about 6% of all electricity produced in the United States. 

Harrison Katz: And if you zoom out and look at air conditioning systems worldwide, they use up about 20% of all electricity produced on Earth.

Megan Hall: Ok, that’s a lot of energy! 

Harrison Katz: Right. So, even though our air conditioners are more efficient, we still have to be careful about how much we use them. For instance, only run them when you’re at home, and keep your windows closed if your AC is on. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Harrison and Ashley! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way your choices affect our planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

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Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

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