With rising temperatures, ACs are running at full speed – some future alternatives are being touted.
In May, Israel experienced a record six-day heat wave with temperatures exceeding 38 degrees Celsius (~100 degrees Fahrenheit) all across the country and over 40 C (104 F) in some areas. Simultaneously, electricity consumption soared to unprecedented heights, setting a new record of 13,809 megawatts of electricity on May 19th.
While this spike in electricity use is undoubtedly linked to the increased use of air conditioning during an exceptionally hot period in springtime, combined with the lifting of most COVID-19 regulations, it’s not only the heat waves that make air conditioning in Israel indispensable; it’s the summer months.
Electricity consumer #1: ACs
According to Ran Avraham, director of Green Building at the Environmental Protection Ministry, the vast majority of building’s electricity consumption during summer is attributed to air conditioning.
“During summer, air conditioning accounts for 60% of the electricity consumption in buildings here in Israel, especially in commercial and public buildings,” Avraham says.
“The peak hours during which most electricity is consumed is roughly between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sometimes this pushes national electricity production to the limit, for example, during heat waves or very hot days in summer,” he adds.
According to Avraham, when this happens, oftentimes, the public is made aware of the problem and asked to limit their electricity consumption during peak hours.
“This goes to show that air conditioning does have a significant overall impact in Israel,” Avraham emphasizes.
The rise of domestic air conditioning in Israel emerged in the early 1990s when a combination of economic prosperity and cheap technology made ACs widely popular and affordable. Today, approximately 80% of all households have air conditioning, and the current trend indicates that in a few years from now, this will further grow and reach nearly 100%.
As the effects of climate change slowly push temperatures higher, even in colder climates, summers become hotter and harder to tolerate without proper air conditioning. This might not be the situation in Israel, since desert-like temperatures are part of the country’s natural climate, however, it is for Europe. Deadly heat waves such as the one in 2003, which caused the deaths of approximately 70,000 people across Europe, have become more frequent.
As part of a documentary on the rise of air conditioning in Germany, a film crew from the German broadcasting company ZDF spoke to Dr. Neta Lipman and Dr. Adi Levi of the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, to find out what it means to live in a region where air conditioning is prevalent.
“It gets extremely hot in Israel, especially during the summer months between June and September. Without proper air conditioning, temperatures are very hard to tolerate,” Lipman says. “There is hardly any building that is not equipped with air conditioning,” she adds.
Air conditioning in Israel is responsible for 45% of the country’s entire electricity consumption. Although this includes all consumption directly related to air conditioning across all business sectors, industries and households, it is still a considerable share of Israel’s energy portfolio.
According to Levi, in places like Tel Aviv, excessive use of ACs might contribute to the urban heat-island effect, which happens primarily in built-up areas during the summer months, when the urban environment becomes substantially warmer than the surrounding rural areas.
“While running, the AC lowers the temperature inside. However, at the same time, it produces waste heat, which gets emitted to the outside. Here, it is trapped between concrete and steel structures and keeps heating up the already hot ambient atmosphere,” he explains.
Alternatives and innovation
“There are additional ways to regulate the temperature inside buildings in a way that will reduce the amount of energy needed for ACs, and we actually have some very nice examples of that here in the center of Tel Aviv,” Levi adds, referring to the Check Point Software Building.
Two sides of the building (East and South) are covered in vegetation by a “green wall,” which not only gives the structure a futuristic look, but acts as a natural cooling system.
“The green walls on this building create natural shading and regulate the temperature on the inside. It’s a natural air conditioner that reduces the amount of light and heat that enters the building through the windows while letting a sufficient amount of natural light enter the office area. In total, it can significantly lower the building’s energy costs,” Levi says.
“At the Ministry of Environmental Protection, we are trying to make buildings more energy-efficient, for instance, through better insulations, natural ventilation, and passive building designs, like BIPV [Building-Integrated Photovoltaics – solar elements that replace conventional building materials] in order to lower electricity consumption and lower the need for air conditioning,” Avraham says.
However, according to Avraham, it is still “difficult sometimes to convince architects, engineers or developers to change their way of planning and take more energy-efficient concepts into consideration. However, I think in recent years, especially through the introduction of the green building standards in Israel, awareness has increased, and we are moving into the direction,” Avraham adds.
New AC system uses seawater
Israeli experts have developed a new system that uses seawater to facilitate the cooling process inside air conditioners in an effort to reduce the negative economic and environmental impact of air conditioning.
Conventional large scale ACs (such as those used in shopping malls and hotels) contain compressed gas to regulate the temperature of the pipes that transport the cold distilled water used to cool the room. This process is very energy intensive.
The new system, however, utilizes seawater instead of compressed gas, which flows through a pipe that is installed next to the actual cooling system and doesn’t need the same amount of energy. According to the researchers, this new technology could save up to 35% of electricity as well as large amounts of drinking water.
Developed in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, where temperatures can reach up to 45 C (113 F) in summer, conventional ACs need copious amounts of energy for their cooling systems. Conveniently, water for the new AC technology would be pumped directly from the relatively cold waters of the Gulf of Eilat (20-27 C, 68-80.6 F) compared to the air temperature, which would even further decrease energy costs.
Although feasible and more sustainable alternatives to ACs exist in the form of passive green building designs and advanced technology, it’s unlikely that conventional ACs will be fully replaced any time soon, especially in a hot and rapidly warming climate like Israel (already at an average of 1.4 degrees C or ~2.5 degrees F in average above pre-industrial levels).
Therefore, public awareness concerning the environmental and economic effects of ACs will also play an important role. This holds true as long as ACs throughout Israel are powered by fossil fuels and not by renewable energy resources.
“Ecological awareness in Israel has made a big leap forward in recent years. However, we are a tiny country that has to deal with a lot of issues other than the environment, which is unfortunate. Security and the economy are bigger factors here. In addition, Israel’s ecological footprint, compared to that of the United States, China or Europe, is very small. Hence it is harder to put environmental issues at the forefront, but with a lot of hard work invested by NGOs and scientists, things are starting to change here rapidly,” Lipman says.
“Nonetheless, people slowly come to realize that this is no excuse for not joining the fight against climate change. For example, there has been a lot of environmental innovation and new green technology coming from Israel that shows that we can and want to contribute in the fight against climate change,” Lipman concludes.