Rojelio Rebeles, with Heartstone, uses a piece of styrofoam around his hardhat to provide shade from the sun while laying bricks on Second St. in Old Town in 2019.

Rojelio Rebeles, with Heartstone, uses a piece of styrofoam around his hardhat to provide shade from the sun while laying bricks on Second St. in Old Town in 2019.

The Wichita Eagle

People are using their air conditioners more frequently to mitigate climate impacts, but access to this much-needed cooling is uneven and the reliance on air conditioning may only make things worse.

While buildings and homes in Kansas and surrounding states have historically been equipped with heating and cooling, that isn’t true for the rest of the nation.

“Places that didn’t need cooling before, are starting to consider that due to climate change,” said Amber Wood, buildings program director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

But while air conditioners can temporarily help mitigate climate change effects in our daily lives, they often run on fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases, creating a loop.

As climate change warms the planet, the more air conditioners run, which in turn releases more gas into the atmosphere, intensifying climate change.

Additionally, with more people running air conditioner units, power grids become strained, putting lives at risk if they falter, or intensify the problem as the machines generate excess heat, making outdoor temperatures warmer.

Over the last 50 years, 95% of cities have seen an increase in the number of days where air conditioning would be needed to maintain a cool indoor temperature, according to a recent study by Climate Central.

Since the 1970s, there has been an increase in the number of single-family homes with central air conditioning, according to the U.S. Survey of Construction.

Just earlier this month, another, likely climate change-fueled heatwave hit the Pacific Northwest, sending residents scrambling for air conditioners and public cooling centers.

As Kansas warms with the rest of the nation, access to heating and cooling could become more important than ever.

“When you look at the number of days above 100, those numbers of days were actually decreasing, but that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook,” Mary Knapp, the state climatologist said.

“We’re looking do you have the ability to run air conditioning? If you have the ability to run air conditioning, your energy demands are going to be higher,” she said. “Do you have the money to pay for it? That’s particularly of concern in urban areas.”

Kansas warming isn’t coming during high temperatures during the day, but the state’s lows are not dropping as much during the night and winter, according to Knapp.

Currently, Kansas has a cold weather rule, which means that if temperatures are projected to drop below freezing, then utilities cannot interrupt power to a residential area.

“If you have a very mild December, and you’ve gotten it above that 32 degree mark, that cold weather rule is suspended,” Knapp said. “And then we have the cold weather that we had in February, people may have had their utilities disconnected when it was warm, but the winter’s not over yet.”

“The protections that are in place are no longer as strong as they were when we were consistently cold during winter,” she said.

Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately impacted by the cost and access to air conditioning, further evidence that the impacts of climate change will not be felt equally.

Air conditioning accounts for 12% of Kansas homeowners’ energy bills, in range with the national average, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But a reliance on air conditioning may not be a long-term solution, experts say, and while an efficient air conditioner is important, equally important is improving homes and building’s energy efficiency, such as air sealing and insulating the homes well. This will also help with reducing energy costs.

“We could solve climate change in a number of ways, but we also don’t want to do it in a way that’s super wasteful, either,” Wood said.

As such, air conditioners shouldn’t be replaced until they reach they fail.

“The intent wouldn’t be to replace something that’s functioning. It would be to try to get the home to be as efficient as possible,” Wood said. “Replace your equipment when it fails with equipment that’s as efficient as possible and it will actually end up then being less expensive than putting in a less expensive air conditioner.”

Additionally, maintenance is incredibly important to ensuring homes run efficiently.

“Even if you don’t necessarily have a contractor come out and do annual maintenance, just replacing your filter for your forced air system in the house can actually have significant savings and improve your indoor air quality,” Wood said.

Help us cover your community through The Eagle’s partnership with Report For America. Contribute now to help fund reporting on the effects of climate change in the Midwest, and to support new reporters.

Sarah Spicer reports for The Wichita Eagle and focuses on climate change in the region. She joined the Eagle in June 2020 as a Report for America corps member. A native Kansan, Spicer has won awards for her investigative reporting from the Kansas Press Association, the Chase and Lyon County Bar Association and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition.