What uses more energy, heat or AC?

As the weather starts to heat up here in D.C., local businesses will begin keeping the temperature at refrigerator-like levels of coolness. When it comes to energy use and environmental impact, air conditioning tends to get more heat, so to speak, but as the University of Michigan’s Michael Sivak finds, the heating needs of people ...

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

As the weather starts to heat up here in D.C., local businesses will begin keeping the temperature at refrigerator-like levels of coolness. When it comes to energy use and environmental impact, air conditioning tends to get more heat, so to speak, but as the University of Michigan's Michael Sivak finds, the heating needs of people in the frigid north are actually more of a problem

Energy demand for climate control was analyzed for Miami (the warmest large metropolitan area in the US) and Minneapolis (the coldest large metropolitan area). The following relevant parameters were included in the analysis: (1) climatological deviations from the desired indoor temperature as expressed in heating and cooling degree days, (2) efficiencies of heating and cooling appliances, and (3) efficiencies of power-generating plants. The results indicate that climate control in Minneapolis is about 3.5 times as energy demanding as in Miami. This finding suggests that, in the US, living in cold climates is more energy demanding than living in hot climates.[...]

To the surprise of many, air conditioners are more energy efficient than furnaces or boilers. Another way of stating this is that it takes less energy to cool down an interior space by one degree than to heat it up by one degree. This is the case, because (in layman's terms) it takes less energy to transfer heat (air conditioners) than to generate heat (furnaces and boilers).[...]

As the weather starts to heat up here in D.C., local businesses will begin keeping the temperature at refrigerator-like levels of coolness. When it comes to energy use and environmental impact, air conditioning tends to get more heat, so to speak, but as the University of Michigan’s Michael Sivak finds, the heating needs of people in the frigid north are actually more of a problem

Energy demand for climate control was analyzed for Miami (the warmest large metropolitan area in the US) and Minneapolis (the coldest large metropolitan area). The following relevant parameters were included in the analysis: (1) climatological deviations from the desired indoor temperature as expressed in heating and cooling degree days, (2) efficiencies of heating and cooling appliances, and (3) efficiencies of power-generating plants. The results indicate that climate control in Minneapolis is about 3.5 times as energy demanding as in Miami. This finding suggests that, in the US, living in cold climates is more energy demanding than living in hot climates.[…]

To the surprise of many, air conditioners are more energy efficient than furnaces or boilers. Another way of stating this is that it takes less energy to cool down an interior space by one degree than to heat it up by one degree. This is the case, because (in layman’s terms) it takes less energy to transfer heat (air conditioners) than to generate heat (furnaces and boilers).[…]

The traditional discussion of climatology and energy demand concentrates on the energy demands for cooling in hot climates. However, the present results indicate that the focus should be paid to the opposite end of the scale as well: In the US, living in cold climates (e.g., in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Rochester, Buffalo, and Chicago) is more energy demanding than is living in hot climates (e.g., in Miami, Phoenix, Tampa, Orlando, or Las Vegas).

On the other hand, world demand for air conditioning is soaring — potentially growing as much as 40-fold this century — as temperatures rise and middle classes grow in formerly poor warm-weather countries, while the demand the global demand for heating is relatively constant. Air conditioners are becoming more efficient but perhaps not fast enough to keep up with this growth.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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