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Clean energy conundrum: A/C units contribute to climate change but are essential for those suffering its effects

As greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere, climate scientists expect extreme heat to become a mainstay.
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As climate change increases the prevalence and geographical spread of extreme heat in the U.S., air conditioner companies are seeing hot demand for their cooling units — and Covid-19 is adding an extra layer of need.

"Not only are people more aware of how hot it is; they're in their homes throughout the day," said Brandon Sommers, a spokesperson for Advantage Heating and Air Conditioning, based in Salem, Oregon. "It's not uncommon that people tell us they never needed A/C before and then buy A/C over the last couple years."

As the pandemic continues to keep people working from home, industry analysts expect that users will run their cooling units more often than normal, leading to more frequent replacements and more sales.

"Where A/C has been a luxury in the past, this year it has been so hot that people are just begging for it."

"We remain extremely bullish on the residential market," Todd M. Bluedorn, CEO of Lennox International, the country's leading heating, ventilation and air conditioning manufacturing company, said on an earnings call last month. "Where run time impacts equipment life on a linear basis, hot summers impact equipment life on an exponential basis."

Last summer, people ran their air conditioners 30 percent more compared to the year before, Bluedorn said, and from 2016 to 2020, the weather has been 5 percent hotter.

The air conditioning and heating industry has been on the upswing for the last several years, driven by the replacement of older units in homes bought during the 2000-07 housing boom and more recently the weather, said Jeff Hammond, equity research analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets.

"The weather has been helping," he said. "Seventy-five to 80 percent of the market is replacement units. Hot weather drives new units harder, and old units need to be replaced."

Temperatures in Portland, Oregon, rose to 116 degrees in June and higher than they have ever been before in Dallas and Los Angeles. The scorching weather prompted a Spokane, Washington-based electrical utility to warn customers about rolling blackouts to control the higher-than-usual power demand. Heat waves across the U.S. and Canada aggravated droughts, causing tinderbox conditions for wildfires.

As greenhouse gases continue to pour into the atmosphere, climate scientists expect such extreme heat to become a mainstay. A climate science report from the federally mandated U.S. Global Change Research Program found that the coldest and warmest daily temperatures are expected to increase by at least 5 degrees Fahrenheit in most areas of the U.S. by midcentury and to rise by 10 degrees by late in the century if greenhouse gases aren't significantly cut.

A study in June 2019 from the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that across the country the annual number of days with heat indexes above 100 degrees will double by midcentury and that days with heat indexes above 105 degrees will triple compared to the end of the 20th century.

But while high temperatures mean increased A/C consumption, the use of air conditioners in turn fuels more greenhouse gas emissions.

"It's a bit of a vicious cycle, because climate change will drive the need for more air conditioning. More air conditioning will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions," said David Gitlan, CEO of Carrier, one of the largest air conditioning and heating companies in the U.S.

A statement in June 2020 from the U.N. Energy Program said that 3.6 billion cooling appliances were in use. As many as 14 billion units will be required by 2050 to meet the world's needs for space cooling as temperatures rise. Natural gas and petroleum make up the majority of energy used to run air conditioning units, according to a report in 2018 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Adam Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, said that everything that traps heat, such as refrigerants used in cooling units, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. But as the world becomes warmer, people will need air conditioners.

"If you want to solve climate change, I would not be worried about air conditioning. I'd be worried about shutting down natural gas and fossil fuels," he said. "While we always should be working to reduce carbon footprint, the main thing is we have to stop burning carbon — and then get to all the second-order problems."

Sommers, whose company serves the Willamette Valley area in Oregon, said that with summer heat averages in the 70s, Oregonians haven't traditionally been in the market for air conditioners. But during the week of the June heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, the company got 900 phone calls, three times as many as its average for the season, he said. Overall, June sales grew by 150 percent this year compared to last year, he said.

"Everybody's super busy right now," he said. "It's all hands on deck all the time."

Scott Park, owner of Quality Heating Electrical & Air Conditioning in Silverdale, Washington, said that on average about 10 percent to 15 percent of customer calls are for air conditioners. But this year, the number increased to 50 percent.

"Where A/C has been a luxury in the past, this year it has been so hot that people are just begging for it," he said.