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Chilling News: UW Confirms Air Conditioning-Air Pollution Link

A University of Wisconsin study says old power plants that kick in to meet peak power demands are also huge polluters of the air. (Wikimedia Commons)
A University of Wisconsin study says old power plants that kick in to meet peak power demands are also huge polluters of the air. (Wikimedia Commons)
May 10, 2017

MADISON, Wis. - Although the hottest days of summer are still many weeks away, a new University of Wisconsin-Madison study is the first to shed light on the exact relationship between air conditioning use and power plant emissions.

Soaring temperatures typically coincide with the days of highest air pollution, and the study is the first to establish that on peak power-demand days, normally idle power plants are fired up to meet the increased demand for electricity to cool buildings.

Tracey Holloway, professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, and her team completed this study, which offers new insight for cleaner air policies.

"Oftentimes these peaking power plants are the dirtiest power plants, because they only are used a few days a year," said Holloway, "and so it doesn't make sense economically to invest in these very expensive controls if you're only going to use them a couple of days a year."

Holloway was surprised that no one had studied this before, and said a combination of energy efficiency and renewable technologies such as solar may offer cost-effective strategies to spend less money on electricity, and have healthier air.

According to Holloway, most of the prior research on climate and air pollution has focused on other emission sources, chemical reactions in the air, and how weather patterns can trap pollution. She said the public-policy implications of the study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, suggest that changes should be made.

"One way is to have more energy-efficient air conditioners." said Holloway, "Another is to have more energy-efficient buildings, so that it takes less energy to cool them. A third strategy is to be getting more of our electricity from solar."

The study showed that heavy use of air conditioning contributes to air pollution, and Holloway and her team are working on more projects that can help scientists and policymakers make better decisions.

"Computer models can recreate this complicated link between buildings, power plants and air," said Holloway, "so that we can test out strategies for reducing the air pollution on these dirtiest days."

She said efforts to reduce peak electricity demand on the hot days of summer could be beneficial to public health.

Read an abstract of the report at Response of Power Plant Emissions to Ambient Temperature in the Eastern United States. (Must purchase temporary or full membership to view full article.)

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI