[Oz-envirolink] air conditioning..
hugh at austrop.org.au
Tue Aug 29 08:22:00 EST 2006
sorry for the silence on the Oz-envirolink site - but I have been too busy
to post anything - and we had an attack of spamming that caused problems -
hopefully we are back in operation.
I would welcome posts on environmental issues, please
I was alerted to this through a listserver 'EnergyResources' - but
unfortunately this article neglects to mention the terrific damage that the
refrigerants in a/c systems do to the environment when released. More onn
Prospect Magazine: Politics Essays Argument
A brief history of air-conditioning
September 2006 | 126 » Essays » A brief history of air-conditioning
Air-conditioning has avoided the opprobrium attached to cars and planes,
but as use of the technology grows rapidly so does its contribution to
Will historians look back at the summer heatwave of 2006 and declare it a
turning point in the hearts-and-minds battle against global warming? Much
of the northern hemisphere was united in discomfort. At the same time, the
tone of public debate seemed to shift. Not many people followed the bishop
of London, Richard Chartres, who declared that flying away on holiday was
sinful. But few of the energy-consuming machines that dominate life in the
west have been able to escape critical scrutiny.
Except for one. There is a piece of 20th-century technology-seldom
discussed or even noticed because it is practically invisible when working
as it should-which has played a role in shaping the modern world almost as
big as the motor car or the aeroplane. Its contribution to carbon emissions
and climate change has been just as disastrous, in its way, and is set to
make an even bigger impact in the near future. Step forward, please, the
humble air-conditioning unit.
Everyone knows that the US is easily the biggest per capita consumer of
electricity on the planet. Less appreciated is that country's dependence on
air-conditioning. Americans, representing less than 5 per cent of the
world's population, consumed roughly one quarter of all the electricity
generated in the world in 2003; and fully a third of that, according to
Energy Bulletin, an independent energy information exchange, went towards
power for air-conditioners. That's 8 per cent of the world's total
electricity supply. Meanwhile, air-conditioners in American vehicles use
7bn gallons of petrol a year, equivalent to the total oil consumption of
Indonesia with a population of 240m. About a third of European cars now
have air-conditioning. The proportion is growing fast, but there is a way
to go before we catch up with the US, where automotive aircon has been
standard equipment for years.
The acknowledged father of air-conditioning is Willis Carrier (1876-1950),
a farmer's son from Angola, New York, who is said to have come up with the
idea while waiting for a train early one morning in Pittsburgh. He observed
a bank of fog rolling over the lip of the station platform and conceived
the all-important theory of "dew-point control." The patent was granted
exactly a century ago. His invention was essentially a refrigerator without
the insulated box. A refrigerant gas was compressed until it liquefied,
then passed through an expansion valve that caused it to evaporate; the
cool air that resulted was distributed by fan. Carrier's original
refrigerant was ammonia. These days Freon is used, although the principle
underlying the technology is unchanged.
Carrier's story reads like an archetype of the American dream: a stirring
tale of visionary brilliance and business acumen that leads to success
against the odds. Carrier tinkered endlessly with old clocks and sewing
machines as a child, and eventually won a mechanical engineering
scholarship to Cornell University. His first job on graduation was with the
Buffalo Forge Company, a manufacturer of heaters and blowers, where he was
quickly put in charge of an experimental department. In 1902, at the age of
25, he devised and installed the world's first air-conditioner for the
Sackett-Wilhelms Lithographing and Publishing Company in Brooklyn. The firm
had been unable to print reliable colours because of the effects of heat
and humidity on paper and ink. Carrier eventually left Buffalo and set up
on his own.
His first clients were mostly commercial. Landmark installations that did
much to bring air-conditioning to the attention of the general public
included Madison Square Gardens and the US Senate, along with cinemas,
department stores, offices and even trains. The depression and then the
second world war were setbacks for Carrier's young company. It was not
until the 1950s that the technology was introduced into houses. The effect
of air-conditioning on worker productivity had already been demonstrated
before the war; now it was marketed as a form of empowerment at home.
"There's something masterful about flipping switches and turning knobs,"
ran the copy on one Carrier advertisement from 1959, "and then seeing and
feeling how your air conditioning responds. That's part of the mastery a
homeowner can now enjoy."
Americans demanded it in their millions. What had originally been
considered a luxury soon became one of the must-haves of modern life.
"Weatherlessness" was perceived as a step towards a technology-driven
vision of utopia.
Because of the weight and size of the early units, the final frontier for
air-conditioning was the automobile. As with the early car phones in the
1980s, the first air-conditioned vehicles carried immense social status. In
Texas in the 1950s, some people drove around with their windows shut tight
in 100-degree heat, just to fool their neighbours.
Since the 1950s air-conditioning has been partly responsible for the
economic development of America's sunbelt, internal migration towards which
continues to this day. Never mind the cowboys out west: aircon was how the
south was won. The same is true of many other parts of the world. The
financial centres of Japan, the capitals of the Asian tiger economies, the
hubs of the Gulf like Dubai-all would be almost unthinkable without
temperature control. So too would the software that links and underpins
them, since computer technology does not function well in hot and humid
conditions. Without air-conditioning, the information superhighway would
buckle in the heat. In South America, Spain and elsewhere in southern
Europe, air-conditioning has killed the midday siesta. And the war on
terror depends on it. Hi-tech, precision weaponry requires low and stable
temperatures for its manufacture.
A more visible legacy of air-conditioning are those clusters of
sealed-window, high-rise offices that dominate our city skylines. It's a
dark thought, but it took the force of two (air-conditioned) airliners to
open the windows of the World Trade Centre in 2001. One of the forerunners
of the World Trade Centre was the Johnson Wax Building in Racine,
Wisconsin, built by the futuristic architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1936.
The building's most notable feature is its almost complete lack of windows,
and so its total reliance on air-conditioning. Not everyone agreed with the
space-cooling revolution that this building symbolised. Its critics
included HL Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and JK Galbraith. Henry Miller visited
the new Johnson building during a tour of America in 1940; an account of
his journey, entitled The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, was published in 1945.
"This place is flawless-deathlike," he wrote. "Man has no chance to create
once inside this mausoleum. Down with Frank Lloyd Wright!" These writers'
wrath, according to Marsha E Ackerman, author of Cool Comfort: America's
Romance with Air-Conditioning, was focused on "the perceived complacency of
a surging middle class full of Babbits who smugly added foolish comforts to
their way of life." The dehumanising influence of technology threatened "to
banish from American life all that was natural, passionate and
spontaneous." It was a futile rearguard action against the march of
progress. Today, 83 per cent of US households contain one or more
air-conditioning units, and the Carrier Corporation employs 45,000 people
in 172 countries.
The one thing that air-conditioning's early detractors didn't mention, but
might have, was the cost to the environment. Despite all the improvements
since Carrier's day, air-conditioning remains hopelessly inefficient. In a
typical unit, as much as 40 per cent of the energy used is lost in the form
of heat. A humming locust plague of air-conditioning plants, blasting out
hot air in urban backyards and on the roofs of big buildings, are
themselves significant local contributors to warming, and one reason that
many cities are often several degrees hotter than their immediate environs.
Air-conditioning, in the words of one environmentalist, is the SUV of the
electricity world. And it contributes to global as well as local
warming-according to the US Environmental Protection Agency's own figures,
3,400 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted each year to cool the average
American home: about two thirds of the annual emissions from an average
And what of the emerging economies in the east-particularly the "surging
middle classes" of Asia and the far east, whose potential numbers dwarf the
air-conditioner users of the US? In China, the pattern set in 1950s America
is already repeating itself. Exactly the same social issues of status,
worker productivity and domestic comfort apply. The Chinese have worked
hard for the trappings of western affluence. Just as in the US half a
century ago, the environment counts for little in the face of such
aspiration. There are already more than 100m residential air-conditioners
in China, triple the number of five years ago. Sales are slower this year
than last, but are still expected to reach a staggering 27m units.
According to figures published in the People's Daily, air-conditioning
already accounts for 15 per cent of national power consumption annually. In
summer, that figure jumps to as much as 40 per cent.
Like Californians, the Chinese have grown used to seasonal electricity
shortages as demand exceeds supply, especially in Shanghai, where there are
regular government decrees obliging shopping malls, offices and hotels to
set their thermostats no lower than 26 degrees Celsius. Two thirds of
China's electricity generation is still coal-fired. Every ten days, it is
said, another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big
enough to serve all the households in Dallas. China uses more coal than the
US, the EU and Japan combined, and is home to five of the ten most polluted
cities in the world-and partly because the Chinese want their homes to be
as cool and as comfortable as those of the Americans.
The local market leader in air-conditioner manufacture is the Haier
Corporation, whose factories cover a square kilometre in the coastal city
of Qingdao, south of Beijing. Haier's sales have grown by an average of 70
per cent every year over the last two decades, and are now worth around
$10bn per annum. Its boss, Zhang Ruimin, was recently rated by Fortune
magazine as one of the most powerful businesspeople outside America. He is
lionised at home, too. His management style is based on the former head of
General Electric, Jack Welch, but he is also a member of the Communist
party central committee. Ruimin is-or so he seems to perceive himself-one
of the new masters of the universe. His corporate literature sounds crazed.
"Haier should be like the sea," it reads, "because the sea can accept all
the rivers on earth, big and small, far and near, coming all the way to
empty into it Haier is the sea."
The clock of progress is seldom turned back. "The best attribute of
air-conditioning is its addiction," Salil Kapoor, the head of marketing in
India for the South Korean company LG Electronics, the world's largest
manufacturer of air-conditioners, once told Reuters. "It's a romance." Yet
addictions can be broken; romance does not always last. Mankind not only
survived for many millennia without Carrier's invention, but developed all
sorts of effective strategies for dealing with the conditions it was
designed to beat. Mesopotamian despots built double-walled palaces, and
packed the cavities with imported ice. The street plan of medieval Korcula,
a Venetian town on an island off the Dalmatian coast, follows a unique
fishbone pattern that maximises shade and cleverly channels any available
sea breeze. To this day, certain Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan spend the
hottest hours of the day on a raised, shaded platform hung about with palm
fronds that are periodically dipped in a nearby stream-a technique known as
evaporative cooling that was widely practised in 18th-century France. Even
the British rulers of imperial India deployed high ceilings and enough
punka-wallahs to prevent their wing-collars from wilting. Air-conditioning,
in other words, is not the only means we have of cooling ourselves down.
In the meantime, the technological utopia once envisioned for America by
Willis Carrier is in danger of becoming all the world's dystopia.
Air-conditioning sits at the centre of what physicists call a "positive
feedback loop," by which they mean that the hotter it gets, the more
inclined people are to turn up the dial on their air-conditioners, with the
result that it gets hotter still. In the understated words of Energy
Bulletin: "Positive feedback loops are a form of amplification, and when
left uncontrolled, lead to a circumstance called saturation This result is
normally an undesirable outcome." Just how undesirable was hinted at this
summer, when high temperatures in California created such a demand for
power that the state was forced to ration it in a series of "rolling
blackouts." The same thing happened in Texas, and even, briefly, in London.
Demand for electricity in California, the world's sixth largest economy,
has grown by 6 per cent a year for the past five years, according to the
utility company Pacific Gas and Electric, who partly blamed the blackouts
on the large number of digital and internet companies with headquarters in
the state, and the levels of air-conditioning these businesses notoriously
In Long Beach in early August, Tony Blair and Arnold Schwarzenegger,
governor of California, met to discuss climate change. They agreed to
"share experiences," to find "new solutions," and to "work to educate the
public on the need for aggressive action to address climate change." The
roundtable of businessmen at which they sat was, naturally, bathed in
conditioned air. Nobody is seriously proposing bringing back the
punka-wallahs, but it is time that air-conditioning was more publicly
recognised as one of those technologies that, while liberating us,
increasingly threatens us too. End of the article
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