It is a sunny day in early April, warm enough to work up a sweat walking up the subway stairs. I strolled into the local McDonald’s by the Essex Street station to get a vanilla ice cream cone. As I opened the door, I came across something I hadn’t seen before, let alone at a McDonald’s- a notice from NYC to keep the door shut while the AC is running. McDonald’s promoting energy efficiency and conservation?! I was stunned. After reading the notice, I realized that in NYC per Local Law 38 businesses with active cooling systems must close their windows and doors, and it’s been the case since 2008. (see photo of sticker below).
When Local Law 38 was enacted in 2008, it applied to businesses over 4,000 SF running an AC or space cooling system; in 2015, that law was updated to apply to all commercial establishments.
Like many other laws, it counts on NYC residents to enforce rather than actual city officials, and this sticker told me how to do so; I can call 311 number to report a case. If only this applied at the household level - I’m sure my dad would have a field day reporting me. I immediately called him to share what I had found.
I was excited by the educational tidbit. The Long Island Power Authority has estimated that open doors lead to between 20-25% increase in energy demand, which as discussed in my post, The Simple Energy Story- 7 Things You Don't Think About When You Turn on The Lights , leads to higher peaks and more power plants to provide that peak power. Letting in warm air and out cold air means higher spikes and a grid that is strapped for resources. It also increases energy bills for the businesses.
Many stores have cited that the AC blowing out into the sidewalks encourages shoppers to stroll in, and promotes a welcoming, open environment. The law creates an even playing field for pulling in customers to their conditioned spaces. We all know it’s going to be cool inside, just not how cool exactly. Without the refreshing sidewalk breeze to immediately entice us to the specific store it’s coming from, we can make out own decisions of where we want to shop. Estimates showing the value of luring in customers with the cold air versus shelling out the money in energy costs are difficult to calculate because you don’t know who was actually enticed by the AC. However, Steve Winters Associates, a building consulting firm, has stated that for a 5,000 SF store, it could mean an extra $1,000 on their energy bill. That’s a high price for some additional foot traffic.
The jury is still out on how effective the law is. The Natural Resources Defense Council conducted a survey in 2015, NYC Businesses Still Blasting Their Air Conditioners with Doors Open, after the first round ofstores were subject to the law but before the law’s extension. It found that 1 in 5 of the buildings left their doors open during the summer and ran their AC. I haven’t seen an updated survey updated; data will likely come out this summer. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look out for the stickers.
I would be remiss not to mention just how much electricity we use for cooling. Buildings are cooled year-round, even in the winter because of server rooms and other equipment that cannot get too hot. The Huffington Post quoted Indian Prime Minister Modi on New York energy use: “Midtown Manhattan has more energy use than the whole country of Kenya, and New York state uses more energy than all of sub-Saharan Africa” (New York City Energy: Interactive Map Shows Appetite for Power). That speaks both to the demand in NYC, including commercial buildings, individual apartments with AC units per person and per space, and to level of electrification and industrialization in Africa. One thing’s for certain- we have become extremely reliant on mechanical climate control. The shift from outdoor to indoor, from passive to active, natural to mechanical is everywhere. No one discusses this better than Ana Swanson in How America fell in love with crazy amounts of air conditioning.
I don’t foresee this changing. Even if we have started eating with the seasons, dressing for the seasons and lowering our AC is a different beast and unlikely. At least we have McDonald’s and the City of New York to remind us to use these mechanical systems and associated natural resources wisely. After all, we can’t always have ice cream to keep us cool.