Julian Spector is a former editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.
Wasted air conditioning has major environmental impacts and can make consumers hotter and more miserable.
Summertime pedestrians know the thrill of walking down a sidewalk and feeling a spine-tickling blast of frigid air from a storefront door. But a new effort by New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs is trying to recast that occurrence as an irresponsible business practice that violates the laws of man and nature.
The “Shut the Front Door!” initiative kicked off Wednesday with an estimated 200 volunteers fanning out across the five boroughs to chat with businesses about the true costs of pumping air conditioning into the ether, while tweeting about it with #BeCoolSaveFuel. The volunteers reminded some 5,000 businesses about Local Law 38, passed in 2008 to ban open door A/C at large chains or stores with more than 4,000 square feet.
DCA Commissioner Julie Menin said the city has stepped up enforcement this year more than ever before, with 860 inspections since June. Wednesday, though, was “not about handing out tickets,” she says. “It was about education. We want to make sure that everyone is being as economical as they can to conserve energy.”
Writing up a shop for leaving the door open might sound pedantic, given all the other environmental issues out there. But Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, points out that the real problem is the cumulative effect of many shops increasing demand on the electric grid at the worst possible times.
“The practice is most troublesome because it usually occurs on the peak demand days of the summer,” says Goldstein, who supported Local Law 38. “That threatens the risk of blackouts and brownouts and requires the utilities to have the most inefficient power supplies available to meet those peak demands.”
Those blackouts aren’t hypothetical, as 20,000 New Yorkers discovered when a heat wave knocked out their power earlier this week.
The environmental cost is huge, too: New York-based power company Con Edison estimates that limiting A/C to indoor spaces would prevent the release of 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide. The emissions aren’t just from everyday electricity usage though, as Scott Waldman at Capital explains:
To keep the lights on during these spikes, thousands of megawatts of fossil fuel-burning power generators are pressed into service, kept online for precisely such moments of high demand. And even though they run only a few hours annually, ratepayers pay to keep them open to handle the summer overload. Virtually all of the so-called “peaker” power sources are dirtier than modern power plants and contribute significantly to air pollution when they run.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is trying to cut the city’s carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, so eliminating waste and “peaker” emissions from A/C makes sense as an easy place to start.
On one hand, the shops presumably wouldn’t spend the extra money on their utility bills if they weren’t noticing some benefit from it—namely financial gain from luring overheated customers in from the hot sidewalks. It’s possible that they rake in more from this strategy than they lose in the additional $1,000 that Con Edison estimates shops spend on utility bills.
But then again, it’s equally possible those open doors frustrate shoppers who seek the cold only to find it escaping out the door. In any case, it’s hard to imagine a business really suffering from keeping the cold shut in.
For those of us who want to use A/C more efficiently at home, the NRDC suggests some simple tips like covering your windows with shades or shutters by day to keep solar heat from entering, and growing plants to the south and west to intercept the midday and late-afternoon rays. During cooler parts of the day, opt for open windows to promote cross-ventilation. Landlords can add reflective coatings to rooftops to deflect some of the heat.
Beyond the practical concerns of energy usage, Goldstein sees the fuel-saving measure as symbolic of the broader fight against climate change.
“If we can’t get businesses to cooperate on even such a simple gesture, it’ll be pretty hard to take the steps to mitigate the worst impacts of our climate crisis,” he says.