3 Case study 2: Refrigerators and climate change

3.2 The US experience: wasteful innovation?

In the 1950s and 1960s many industrialised countries experienced a prolonged period of economic expansion which, together with the rise of consumerism, created an increased demand for domestic appliances. With ready access to cheap supplies of fuel, there was little or no incentive for manufacturers or consumers to worry about energy conservation. Nowhere was this more evident than in the US, as the following extract from the influential book Factor Four of the design developments in domestic refrigeration illustrates (von Weisäcker et al., 1997, p. 33).

‘The main failing in most refrigerators is their insulation. From about 1950 to 1975, as electricity became cheaper, refrigerator makers kept making the insulation thinner so they could make the inside of the refrigerator bigger without making the outside bigger… They also used very inefficient compressors, often mounted underneath so the heat would rise into the food compartment and have to be removed all over again… The door wasn't well sealed against air leaks, and when it was open to expose the open shelves, all the cold air would fall out. The thin insulation caused the outer surface of the box to ‘sweat’ with condensation in humid weather, so the manufacturers installed electric heaters to dry it out; until recent years these couldn't even be turned off in dry sites or seasons. The anti-sweat heaters teamed with the thin insulation to help the extra heat get back inside faster. Inefficient fans were added to distribute the cooling, substituting for good design in the first place, and to make sure the food got dried out as well as cooled. To reduce frosting inside, electric heaters were put there too, along with inefficient lights, just to make sure the cooling system had plenty to do.’

The authors make the point forcefully (and with many more examples than this selection shows). There is no doubt that domestic refrigerators in the US at the time were not energy efficient, indeed each ‘improvement’ that was added seemed to create extra problems and to require extra energy to solve it again. Some of the problems that the designers were attempting to deal with, avoiding ‘frost’ for example, are not trivial, but only access to an apparently endless supply of cheap energy could explain the design extravagances that resulted.

In 1972 the average model sold in the US consumed 3.36kWh (kilowatt-hour, one of the standard units of electricity) of electricity per year, for each litre of cold space. The following year the ‘oil shock’ occurred and changed attitudes to energy use and conservation dramatically. State and federal governments soon began to introduce successively tighter energy standards. By 1998 major US manufacturers had agreed to work to a standard 0.86 kWh of electricity per litre of cold space – close to one quarter of the average value of 25 years earlier. It does not follow, though, that average electricity consumption in the US by refrigerators and freezers has fallen to a quarter of the 1972 figure. One reason is that the average replacement time for these appliances is about 15 years, so there is a considerable delay between the introduction of standards for new models and achieving their potential to reduce consumption. So, even in the late 1980s, a sixth of all US household electricity was still being consumed by refrigerators or combination refrigerator-freezers. (Which, as the authors of Factor Four point out, is equivalent to the output of about 30 Chernobyl-sized power stations.)