Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development

New York City Breaks Its Energy Use Record During Brutal Week-Long Heat Wave

July 21, 2013

By Katie Valentine

The heat wave that blanketed parts of the East Coast in close to 100-degree temperatures and high humidity broke the daily temperature record at JFK International Airport. It was the longest heat wave in New York City in more than a decade. But it made history in another way too: New York City broke its record for energy use on Friday, as residents cranked up air conditioning in an effort to stay cool.

Friday marked the sixth of the seven-day heat wave that brought heat indexes as high as 107 degrees to parts of New York. The city wasn’t alone in its need for air conditioning: the heat wave caused New York State, too, to break its previous power record, which was set in 2006.

New York City’s last energy use record was set in July 2011, amidst another bout of extreme temperatures — a cycle of high rates of energy usage in response to high temperatures that will become more common as climate predictions continue to play out. Heat waves are already becoming more frequent and intense as temperatures rise, and duration of heat waves has increased worldwide since the 1950s. In order to find relief from the high temperatures, residents retreat to air conditioned homes and buildings, driving up the emissions that contribute to climate change. The U.S., which has long been a leader in air conditioning usage, has seen a surge in its energy useage from A.C. over the past few decades — between 1993 and 2005, the energy it took to cool U.S. homes doubled, and by 2010 it increased by another 20 percent.

But as temperatures and income levels rise, A.C. is quickly becoming a fixture in the rest of the world as well: China is on track to pass the U.S. as the biggest consumer of electricity for A.C. by 2020, and India, which is experiencing some of the fastest growth in A.C. demand, is expected to take over growth in the industry post-2020.

These widespread increases in A.C. demand are bad news for the climate, as Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, told Environmental Health Perspectives. “You’re putting out more climate pollutants as you’re burning more coal or gas to run the air conditioners, and you’re also putting out the greenhouse gases that serve as the refrigerants in the equipment,” he said.

Though A.C. usage goes up as a whole during heat waves, there are still many people that don’t have access to it, which makes them vulnerable to the deadly effects of heat. A study released this May found that heat-related deaths in Manhattan could increase by 20 percent over the next decade, and will affect poor communities that lack access to A.C. most of all. Air conditioning, despite its contribution to climate change, can be a lifesaver during a heat wave — which is why New York started a program to provide free units to the state’s most vulnerable.