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The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2017-05-03 12:05:23
  • Article ID: 674069

Study Measures Air Pollution Increase Attributable to Air Conditioning

MADISON — When summer temperatures rise and people turn to their air conditioners to stay cool, something else also increases: air pollution.

A new study published Wednesday (May 3, 2017) in the journal Environmental Science & Technology shows that the electricity production associated with air conditioning causes emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide to increase by hundreds to thousands of metric tons, or 3 to 4 percent per degree Celsius (or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

“The hottest days of the summer typically coincide with the days of highest air pollution,” says study lead author David Abel, a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “We quantified the relationship between daily temperature and power plant emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide on a state-by-state basis in a comprehensive manner that hasn’t been done before.”

Increased emissions of these gases can affect not only the environment but also people’s health. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides — both of which are regulated in the U.S. — can cause respiratory problems, particularly in children, people with asthma and the elderly. Carbon dioxide is a primary greenhouse gas targeted by power plant regulations.

“We show that increased electricity demand may play a key role in high levels of ozone, particulate matter and other pollutants, so efforts to reduce peak demand could be beneficial to public health,” Abel explains.

Scientists have long known that air pollution is highest on hot days but few studies have looked at the specific effects of electricity emissions on the hottest days and what they contribute to air pollution. The report’s state-specific findings provide valuable data for policymakers and other local stakeholders, who can see how emissions in their region respond to temperature.

“Most of the research on climate and air pollution has focused on other emission sources, chemical reactions in the air, and how weather patterns can trap pollution,” says Tracey Holloway, who led the study. Holloway is a professor of environmental studies at the Nelson Institute and in the UW-Madison Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. She says the study carries the discussion a step further: “We showed that hot summer days also have higher emissions from power plants.”

The study team included scientists at Seventhwave, a Madison-based nonprofit, and Paul Meier, an engineer at Blumont/International Relief and Development who was with the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW–Madison when he completed the work. Using data collected between 2003 and 2014, the team ­crunched the numbers on electricity emissions in 26 states in the eastern U.S., along with Texas.

They showed that power plants released 3.35 percent more sulfur dioxide on average per degree Celsius increase in temperature, and that nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide rose by 3.60 percent and 3.32 percent, respectively. Although overall emissions dropped in the study period — primarily due to increased use of emissions-control devices and a decrease in coal use — the analysis showed large regional variability.

The researchers were surprised to find that states with lower overall emissions in the Northeast show the highest sensitivity to temperature. This, they say, highlights the importance of peak electricity generation on hot days and the role of older or less regulated facilities that may only be turned on when people blast their air conditioners. These are often the days when pollution control is most important to protect public health. Abel says a large portion of the U.S. population continues to regularly encounter air pollution.

The researchers plan to continue studying the impacts and interactions of increases in emissions on hot summer days with other processes that affect concentrations of ozone, particulates, and other forms of air pollution.

“Our next step is to compare the impact of electricity emissions with other factors affecting pollution formation – especially chemistry, natural emissions, and wind patterns,” notes Holloway. “We’d like to be able to say how these processes interact. For example, relative to other factors controlling pollution formation, how important is the response of emissions from power plants?”

The study was funded by UW-Madison, the National Institutes of Health and NASA.

Adapted from a release by Christine Suh at the American Chemical Society.

—Jenny Peek

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High-Speed Movie Aids Scientists Who Design Glowing Molecules

In a recent experiment conducted at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a research team used bright, ultrafast X-ray pulses from SLAC's X-ray free-electron laser to create a high-speed movie of a fluorescent protein in action. With that information, the scientists began to design a marker that switches more easily, a quality that can improve resolution during biological imaging.

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Berkeley Lab scientists have harnessed the power of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants. The achievement marks a significant advance in the effort to move toward sustainable sources of fuel.

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PPPL Physicist Francesca Poli Named ITER Scientist Fellow

Article describes new ITER Scientist Fellow.

Los Alamos Gains Role in High-Performance Computing for Materials Program

A new high-performance computing initiative announced this week by the U.S. Department of Energy will help U.S. industry accelerate the development of new or improved materials for use in severe environments.

UK Commits $88 Million to LBNF/DUNE in First-Ever Umbrella Science Agreement with U.S.

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Wayne State Receives $1.2 Million NSF Grant to Develop Autonomous Battery Operating System

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UAH leads effort that secures $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation

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Tulane Receives Grant to Reduce Auto Emissions

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Lab Leads New Effort in Materials Development

Lawrence Livermore National Lab will be part of a multi-lab effort to apply high-performance computing to US-based industry's discovery, design, and development of materials for severe environments under a new initiative announced by the Department of Energy (DOE) on Sept. 19.

ORNL Innovation Crossroads Program Opens Second Round of Energy Entrepreneurial Fellowships

Entrepreneurs are invited to apply for the second round of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Innovation Crossroads program.

Los Alamos Recognized as Top Diversity Employer

For the second straight year, Los Alamos National Laboratory was recognized as a top diversity employer by LATINA Style and STEM Workforce Diversity magazine.


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Fungi: Gene Activator Role Discovered

Specific modifications to fungi DNA may hold the secret to turning common plant degradation agents into biofuel producers.

First Look at a Living Cell Membrane

Neutrons provide the solution to nanoscale examination of living cell membrane and confirm the existence of lipid rafts.

High Yield Biomass Conversion Strategy Ready for Commercialization

Researchers convert 80 percent of biomass into high-value products with strategy that's ready for commercialization.

Consequences of Drought Stress on Biofuels

Switchgrass cultivated during a year of severe drought inhibited microbial fermentation and resulting biofuel production.

Clay Minerals and Metal Oxides Change How Uranium Travels Through Sediments

Montmorillonite clays prevent uranium from precipitating from liquids, letting it travel with groundwater.

Tundra Loses Carbon with Rapid Permafrost Thaw

Seven-year-study shows plant growth does not sustainably balance carbon losses from solar warming and permafrost thaw.

Crystals Grow by Twisting, Aligning and Snapping Together

Van der Waals force, which that enables tiny crystals to grow, could be used to design new materials.

Vitamin B12 Fuels Microbial Growth

Scarce compound, vitamin B12, is key for cellular metabolism and may help shape microbial communities that affect environmental cycles and bioenergy production.

Carbon in Floodplain Unlikely to Cycle into the Atmosphere

Microbes leave a large fraction of carbon in anoxic sediments untouched, a key finding for understanding how watersheds influence Earth's ecosystem.

Bacterial Cell Wall Changes Produce More Fatty Molecules

New strategy greatly increases the production and secretion of biofuel building block lipids in bacteria able to grow at industrial scales.


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