AC and Habitability
What would life be like without air conditioning in hot weather? America grew up nicely without air conditioning, and for that matter without any electric grid. Surely we could return to 1900 technology and have comfortable lives without air conditioning or plug-in electric current if modern, energy-intensive technologies were no longer available?
It’s not so easy. Home and office builders since World War II have assumed a continuing, practically unlimited, supply of electricity for cooling among other uses. Office windows no longer open to let in fresh air and the occasional breeze during hot days, office workers use electric elevators, our computers and communication equipment run on electricity.
Phoenix, Arizona, is an extreme example of AC dependence. It’s the fifth-largest city in the USA and one of the fastest growing. The effect of global warming will be additional heat for a city climate which already has over a hundred days a year with 100 degrees F or higher with twenty or so above 110. There are thousands of acres of heat-retaining pavement and structures which make Phoenix hotter than the desert around it.
Local officials mostly assume that AC will be always be reliable and available in quantities and at times to make contemporary Phoenix habitable. There are a few efforts to guide adjustments should power fail, which predictably are often attacked, ignored or minimized by growth-at-all-costs real estate and political leaders. Most of Arizona’s population lives in Phoenix’s Maricopa County which does have an “Emergency Management”county government section which publishes a brochure titled “Are you ready? Power Outages. Preparedness Starts with You!” The county recommends a series of steps to “Prepare Yourself & Your Family” for power outages including having a “Disaster Plan” for what to do if the AC is knocked out for a short period.
Preparing for short-term outages is smart, but it is also wise to look at long-term trends considering that 2017 was the hottest year in Maricopa County records and that the county had, by official count, a record 172 heat-related deaths. Before moving there, one should consider whether science’s predictions of increasing heat might, along with predicted declines in the eight inches of rain the city receives in an average year, make the city uninhabitable within your time horizon.
The good side is that the city gets lots of intense, unshielded sunshine that can be captured and converted into the electricity to run the city’s millions of air conditioners. All man-made systems, including solar power, are subject to breakdown, but we can expect continuing improvements in technology which will make air conditioners and power sources reliable and efficient.