Skip to main content

It wasn’t so long ago that air conditioning was more the exception than the rule in Calgary. The city’s dry air, high elevation and cool nights meant people didn’t need to spend thousands of dollars on an AC unit to keep the heat away.

There were only a handful of truly hot days in July and August. And unlike the sticky summers in central Canadian cities, fans and open windows did the trick.

This summer – and other recent years – has blown those old presumptions out of the water, with unheard-of stretches of heat, and smoke from ghastly forest fires.

Calgary had seven straight days of temperatures that hit 30 C or above at the end of June and beginning of July. It’s a potential preview of summers to come. A changing climate not only means AC becomes a far more common housing feature, but it could also alter demand on the electrical grid – especially in a province where the peak is usually in the winter.

Andrew Fischer, owner of A&E HVAC Solutions Ltd., said in his 20 years in the business he’s never seen such a busy summer. His small company can install 15 to 20 central air conditioning units a month, and this year he could have done double that in Calgary if he had the staff and supplies. People also like it that AC allows them to shut their windows and keep the smoke out. Mr. Fischer had to slow the pace of work at times, as his crew have risked heat exhaustion. “It’s been a pretty wild year.”

But Mr. Fischer thinks it is about more than the temperatures, and related to well-sealed new homes – designed to trap heat inside for energy efficiency in the winter – and peoples’ much-increased demands.

“It has a lot more to do with people being spoiled, rather than the extra heat. People want to be comfortable. People have the money,” he said.

“Air conditioning used to be a want. And now peoples’ expectations are that it’s a need.”

The wealth of a place matters when it comes to AC. Organizations like the International Energy Agency have said that as incomes and living standards improve in many developing countries, AC demand is set to soar.

Increasingly, air conditioning is being installed in places where uptake wasn’t high before – such as China, India and Indonesia. “Global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity the equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan today. The global stock of air conditioners in buildings will grow to 5.6 billion by 2050, up from 1.6 billion today,” the IEA said in a 2018 report.

That shift will put enormous strain on electricity systems, and increase greenhouse gas emissions. The question of how to keep individual homes and buildings cool without vastly adding to GHGs will be a global problem to solve.

But AC rates are not just going up in hot, developing countries. It’s also becoming a thing for developed economies with traditionally colder climates. A decade ago, fewer than one in five Calgary households had AC, according to Statistics Canada. In 2017, about one-quarter had air conditioning. Mr. Fischer now estimates at least 35 to 40 per cent of the city’s single-family homes have a unit (The rate is going up across the province. And Edmonton, with its warmer summer nights, has always had more AC than Calgary).

That trend could accelerate if climate change predictions hold true. The city of Calgary says the temperature hits 29 C or above an average of nine days per year. By the 2050s, it says Calgary could have 27 annual heat days. CBC has noted Calgary’s famously cool nights are trending warmer, too.

Blake Shaffer, an economist at the University of Calgary, said that trend has a double effect: People use their air conditioners more, and “people who don’t have air conditioners rush out and go get some.”

And that means demand for electricity goes up when temperatures increase because more people are now capable of running AC. “You get this real surge,” said Prof. Shaffer, who specializes in electricity markets, climate policy and energy transitions. “And we are totally seeing that across the country in the rate of air conditioner adoption. It used to be quite low outside of, say, the GTA and Montreal.”

Alberta’s electricity system is undergoing rapid changes. Natural gas is replacing coal-fired production. Solar and wind are ramping up. The Alberta Electric System Operator, in its recent long-term outlook, says electric vehicles could stress the grid in a decade or two. At the same time, increasing demand for electricity in the industrial sector could slow if oil sands growth weakens.

Prof. Shaffer said the demand for AC could also change the shape of Alberta’s electricity system. Like other Canadian provinces, Alberta’s highest demand for electricity is in the winter – not because it has much electric heating, but because systems run less efficiently in the cold.

But demand on the electricity grid came within a hair of breaking a record during the heat wave, on June 29 – when use reached 11,721 megawatts. The record is 11,729 MW, from the winter of 2020.

“We almost surpassed our winter peak, in the summer,” Prof. Shaffer said. “It would have been something extraordinary because the Alberta Electric System Operator does a long-term outlook, out to 2040, and they foresee winter peaks for the next 20 years.”

“I don’t foresee that. I think pretty soon we’re going to clearly be a summer-peaking system.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe