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Cooling Off During Heat Wave Doesn't Have To be a Summer Bummer

During California's heat wave, don't just turn down the AC. Turn it off altogether with some (super basic) suggestions.

While much of the country is finally cooling down after weeks of grueling heat, for the nearly one-tenth of Americans who live in Southern California, summer is just starting to get real. Today marks the peak of a week-long heat wave that's brought triple-digit weather and record-breaking moments to the valleys, mountain ranges, and desert areas—and remarkably beachy weather to the beaches—throughout the Southland.

The heat may pale in comparison to the weather that's punished the rest of the country all summer long, but the bigger problem is that SoCal's creaky and overextended power grid is struggling under the strain of so many air-conditioing units. (Remember those rolling blackouts back in 2000?) Yesterday, the California Independent System Operator, who manages the state's power gird, issued a "flex alert" through Sunday (and later reduced it to just Friday), which asks people to reduce consumption of electricity, especially air conditioning during afternoon hours, when people return to their stiffling homes from ice-cold offices and crank up the AC.

While it's important to get people to think about their consumption—and indeed, flex alerts work, as a reduction in energy consumption yesterday attests to—the approach that the state adopts couldn't be any more of a bummer. Tips to save energy, according to the flex alert website, include the following: turning down air-conditioning to a balmy 78 degrees (what's the point?), turning off your computer (boring), closing all your blinds (creepy), turning down your hot water heater (complicated), and cutting back on opening the fridge (so no iced tea refills?).

Apparently the official vision of how people should react to a hot summer afternoon is by holing up in their dark, barely cooled off home, with no computer and or enough beverages to get them through the day. And, predictably, cue the backlash to the flex alert: On local public radio today, at least one caller phoned in to encourage people to blast their AC unit, saying we have the right to keep cool and it's the energy companies problems if they can't keep up.

While I don't agree with that approach, I do think there are some less prohibitionary tips to get people to reduce energy use. In honor of a brutally hot, Friday afternoon, here's a simple list of fun ways to cool off that we wish local government and energy companies would promote instead of their boring, hermetic approach.

  • Organize an office happy hour. The peak hours for air-conditioning use are four to six. Coincidentally, that overlaps with the peak hours that people around you want to drink. Maybe you can watch the Olympics while you're there. While there are probably rules that prohibit the govenrment or power companies from encouraging people to go out drinking, that seems rather shortsighted. Maybe you don't drink, maybe you're tired: go to the coffee shop instead.

  • If you feel like being at home, invite your friends over. Organize a "cool off party." You might as well all use one air conditioing unit as opposed to everyone using her own. With friends over, you won't need to use your computer since you'll have real life humans to talk with.

  • Go to the movies. It's always freezing at the movies. Hate the movies? Run your errands instead. Other places where its typically cold include the grocery store, library, post office, hardware store, or pretty much anywhere else where things are sold.

  • Go to the beach (or public pool). Again this is basic, but during the heat wave, it's about 10 to 20 degrees cooler on the coast than inland.
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The point is that the government should think realistically about the way people live. Sure, plenty of people go home after a day of work and crank up the AC, but as this list shows, there are plenty of ways to turn something like a call for reduced air-conditioning into an opportuntiy to take advantage of where you live, do something community-oriented, and even encourage a bit of economic activity. Fighting the heatwave doesn't have to be prohibitionary, and it's silly to envision the default setting for people's afternoon locations as esconced in their sweaty living rooms.

Photo via (cc) Flicker user visualthinker

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