Can America Overcome its Air Conditioning Addiction?

Americans love excess and the personal comfort created by a blasting air conditioning unit is no exception. The Rocky Mountain Institute hopes to change the culture without reducing comfort with its new Innovation Center.

by / August 24, 2015

The U.S. is the land of excess, air conditioning included. The Washington Post reported that many Europeans visiting the U.S. complain about the freezing cold temperatures inside places like buses, hotels and shops. “Only fools are satisfied,” should adorn the nation’s currency, because the Environment Protection Agency reports that demand for air conditioning is rising still. New technologies and standards are introduced regularly to combat the high energy consumption rate caused by America’s love of air conditioning and electronic appliances in general, but the drive to stay cool could be a hard cultural barrier to overcome.

"Americans tend to keep their thermostats at the same temperature all year around. In contrast, Europeans tend to set their thermostats higher in summer and lower in winter. Consequently, while indoors, Europeans wear sweaters in winter, while American wear sweaters in summer," Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan, told The Post.
Stan Cox, a researcher who has spent years studying air conditioning, said America’s air conditioning addiction puts the nation in a difficult leadership position for energy conservation. Do as I say, not as I do, would need to be America’s message.
"The bottom line is that America's a big, rich, hot country," Cox told The Washington Post. "But if the second, fourth, and fifth most populous nations – India, Indonesia, and Brazil, all hot and humid – were to use as much energy per capita for air-conditioning as does the U.S., it would require 100 percent of those countries' electricity supplies, plus all of the electricity generated by Mexico, the U.K., Italy and the entire continent of Africa.”
When asked to explain why America overuses air conditioning, architects, engineers, building owners and energy experts typically concede the problem is cultural, The New York Times reported.
“Being able to make people feel cold in the summer is a sign of power and prestige,” said Richard de Dear, director of the Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory at University of Sydney, Australia, The Times reported.
Some defend their frosty temperatures in the workplace with the claim that they generate greater productivity from workers. One study, however, shows the opposite. When the temperature is lowered from between 74 and 76 degrees to between 68 and 72 degrees, researchers found people worked less and made more mistakes.
If stubborn air conditioning lovers are lucky, advances in building design will allow them to keep up their habit. The Rocky Mountain Innovation Center, a 15,610-square-foot facility being constructed by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Basalt, Colo., uses an approach to personal comfort that’s easily reconciled with the organization’s commitment to sustainability.
RMI notes in a blog post that the comfort a person experiences while inside a building results from several factors, and though temperature is one of them, potential discomfort caused by higher temperatures can be offset by other factors. Borrowing from ASHRAE 55, a human-centered professional standard for thermal conditions, the RMI identified six factors for comfort:
  1. Air velocity using ceiling fans and personal fans
  2. Air temperature through natural ventilation
  3. Surface temperature from cooling thermal mass in the floors and wall overnight
  4. Occupants’ activity level – designing the space to be comfortable for all possible activities
  5. Humidity taking advantage of Colorado's semi-arid climate
  6. Occupants’ clothing level encouraging occupants to dress comfortably
With this philosophy in mind, the facility’s design team was able to eliminate central cooling from their design. The new approach could change how buildings are designed in the industry, said Chris McClurg, a senior associate at Rocky Mountain Institute.
“Once the team is able to step away from the standard rules of thumb and gut checks by openly discussing the risks and benefits of this approach, they can focus on providing enhanced personal comfort where energy savings are almost a secondary benefit,” McClurg said.
RMI’s approach looks at people rather than the rooms in a building, because rooms don’t need to be comfortable – people do. Rather than equipping a room with a large overhead cooling fan, for instance, room dwellers can use personal heating and cooling chairs equipped with smaller fans. The facility will also use small USB-powered fans, radiant heat pads and heated mousepads to help people regulate their comfort.
A lack of centralized cooling equipment snowballed into other savings for RMI. The building’s mechanical room was reduced by 200 square feet because it didn’t need to house the additional equipment. RMI estimates the facility’s energy use will be 17 kBtu per square foot, which would make it the most energyefficient building in the nation’s coldest climate zone, according to RMI.
More on the Innovation Center can be found on the Rocky Mountain Institute blog.