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These 5 Charts Show Just How Much the U.S. Relies on Air Conditioning

8 minute read

If you spent time this summer in the U.S., no matter where you were, chances are you felt some pretty extreme heat. This past July marked the third hottest July in the 128-year temperature record kept by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, behind 1936 (the hottest) and 2012. As heat waves swept the country, eight states endured July temperatures that were among their top-five warmest, including Texas, which had its hottest July ever.

But 2022 is less of an anomaly and more just another rung in the ladder of upward climbing temperatures being driven by global climate change. To adapt, people in the U.S. are relying more on home cooling systems, which provide relief but at a major financial and environmental cost. Here are five charts that illustrate the country’s paradoxical reliance on air conditioning.

1. Nearly everyone is cooling their home these days

The U.S. has historically had among the highest rates of household air conditioning use in the world. And it continues to grow. Air conditioning in U.S. homes has crept from 77% of households in 2001 to 88% in 2020, making it now nearly ubiquitous, according to survey data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Most of the cooling systems are fixtures of the home, like central ACs or central heat pumps, as the below chart shows. But adoption varies by construction era: 83% of homes built before 1950 have AC, compared with 93% of homes built in the 2010s.

There are regional differences, too. The holdouts tend to be along the historically temperate Pacific coastline, where only about half of homes have AC. But even in that climate region, where rolling, multi-day heat waves are becoming commonplace, things are changing with newer construction: 66% of homes erected there in the 2010s have AC, versus 39% of homes built before 1950.

2. Americans with AC like to keep their homes chilly

American households are far more likely to have AC than their European counterparts in part because cool air has always been a necessity in some regions of the U.S., like the humid South and the desert Southwest. In countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, less than 5% of homes in each country have AC, according to a 2018 report from the International Energy Agency—even despite the intense heat waves that have recently sizzled those countries.

But Americans don’t just have greater access to residential AC. They also have a tendency to blast it, including when they’re not at home. According to a TIME analysis of 2015 statistics from EIA, the most recent data available, the average temperature was set to 74°F when no one was home. That average dropped closer to 70°F when someone was at home, and at night time. The U.S. Department of Energy has previously suggested that summertime thermostats be set to 78°F during at-home hours and 82°F at night, but later clarified that the guidance was less about setting a strict number and more about illustrating that it’s more energy efficient to bump the temperature up about 4°F at night and 7°F when away from home.

Read more: Summers Are Becoming Unbearably Hot Before They Even Start

But a deeper look at the EIA data suggests that Americans aren’t universally heeding that advice. People with individual ACs, like window units and portable systems, tend to vary their temperature settings depending on time of day and whether someone is home. Those with central air conditioners, on the other hand, are more likely to set one temperature and leave it there most of the time.

There are several problems with running AC so frequently, so forcefully, and so unnecessarily. For one, it increases demand on the electrical grid, which can trigger outages; Texas’s grid facility requested in July that residents limit AC and other major appliances amid peak record demand. What’s worse, AC units contribute to global warming by putting heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. When AC units have reached the end of their lives, the hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in the coolant can escape, which is why some states started to phase them out even before the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would do so last year. Also, AC units that are powered by utility companies indirectly increase carbon dioxide emissions because those utilities typically rely on fossil fuels to generate electricity.

3. But Americans struggle to pay for it

Where there is cool relief, there is also financial pain. Powering an AC doesn’t come cheap, and for many, it’s downright unaffordable. In 2020, 34 million U.S. households (27%) said they could not meet their energy needs at some point that year, according to EIA. Among them, 20% had cut how much food or medicine they buy to pay their energy bills, and 10% had left their home at an unsafe temperature due to cost concerns. Additionally, 10% had received a disconnection notice from their utility company, though that may have been a lower percentage than in other years because a number of states issued temporary pandemic-related shutoff moratoriums.

Households were feeling the pinch even before this summer due to costlier natural gas, which power plants need to operate. Government statistics for June show that the average price of residential electricity was 15.42¢ per Kilowatt-hour that month, up from 13.85¢ a year earlier, an increase of 11%. But some regions of the U.S. saw prices increase more than 20% during that time, as the chart below shows.

Lagging government statistics don’t fully capture the affordability problem. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, more than 20 million American households (roughly one in every six) are behind on their utility bills, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association (NEADA), an organization that represents state governments to secure federal funding for energy assistance programs. What’s more, NEADA reports that the average cost for summer cooling between June and September was about $450 last year and is expected to be about $600 this year.

4. Protections are scattershot and temporary

The federal government provides energy-assistance funding to states through LIHEAP, short for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The Biden Administration more than doubled that program’s $3.8 billion appropriated funding for 2022 to $8.3 billion through a provision in the American Rescue Plan that allowed families to pay past-due bills as well as current bills. The extra money runs out on Sept. 30, 2022, and next year’s funding will be back down to about $4 billion unless Congress increases it.

Every state except Florida and Hawaii prohibit utility shutoffs for medically vulnerable residents who fall behind on payments. Some states also have specific conditions for households with babies and the elderly. But broad protections against utility shutoffs when the weather gets too hot or too cold are uneven across the country. According LIHEAP data, 41 states and Washington, D.C. have blanket protections against utility shutoffs during extremely cold weather, but only 16 states and Washington, D.C., have similar blanket protections for extremely hot weather.

According to Mark Wolfe, executive director of the NEADA, lack of protections aren’t the source of the shutoff problem (affordability is), nor are protections an end-all solution for struggling customers (because the bill doesn’t go away, and customers can get their power cut off right after a heatwave and then not get it reinstated before the next one hits, he says). But during extremely hot weather, which can trigger and exacerbate serious health issues, such protections could be life saving.

Read more: Climate Experts Are Testing New Ways To Reach the People Most Affected by Extreme Heat

“States decide how to allocate the funds during the course of the year,” Wolfe says. “And up to recently, states used about 85% of the money they get for heating. The problem is, we only have enough money to reach one of every six eligible households, and on top of that, we don’t have enough to help with heating and cooling bills.”

5. Change is happening, but slowly

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act offers financial incentives like tax credits to lower-income households that make their homes better insulated and more energy-efficient. That’s a step in the right direction to optimize cooling in an ever-warming world. But Wolfe says those incentives may not reach low and middle-class households that likely can’t afford the up-front costs.

As the below chart shows, utility costs have increased for everyone, but those in the bottom income brackets feel it more, as they allocate a much greater share of their income to keep the power on. Utilities typically offer specialized payment plans, but those tend to work best when residents have long periods to pay for a particularly expensive season. Increasingly, though, high energy bills are coming in both winter and summer months, leaving customers with less breathing room.

“As we think about adapting to rising temperatures, we’re thinking a lot about infrastructure like sea walls and train tracks, which cost hundreds of billions of dollars,” says Wolfe. “The other piece is, how do we help protect the families from rising temperatures?”

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