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Is there a better version of an AC in our future?

As the world heats up, more air conditioning is being purchased, and the sector is ripe for innovation. The earth is getting hotter every year, and people around the world are experiencing temperatures they’d never thought they would.

This increased demand for AC is part of a global pattern, experts say: climbing temperatures, coupled with a growing population and rising incomes, will cause the demand for cooling to spike. The International Energy Agency estimates that over the next three decades, the number of AC units installed worldwide will triple to nearly 6 billion from the current 2 billion. This creates a paradox: As more ACs are taken on to cope with the climbing temperatures, they emit more greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming, making events like future heat waves even more likely.

The increasing demand, however, presents an enormous financial opportunity. As a result, start-ups are entering the space, creating new competition in a formerly sleepy industry. This is spurring a wave of innovation on both the technological and aesthetic fronts, as companies look to develop more sustainable units that also look sleek and modern.

While all the major OEMs are incrementally improving the efficiency of their machines, some of the most exciting innovation is coming from the start-up sector that are trying to redesign air conditioners to significantly cut down on their greenhouse gasses. For now, these eco-friendly air conditioners tend to be pricier, so to compete with the cheaper mass market brands, start-ups are reimagining their very look and offering a better customer experience.

But to avert the most devastating impacts of climate change, brands will need to win over more than just affluent, design-conscious consumers and convince billions of people around the world to switch to more efficient, less polluting units.

How to design a better air conditioner

Willis Carrier invented the first room air conditioner in 1926; and since then, the basic design hasn’t changed significantly. The machines suck warm air from a room, a refrigerant cools the air, which is then blown back into the room. “Air-conditioning is a very power-hungry operation,” says Sorin Grama, cofounder and CEO of Transaera, which is developing a low-cost, energy-efficient AC. “The second law of thermodynamics is that heat flows from a hot body to a cold body. To go against the laws of nature consumes a lot of energy, which puts a lot of strain on the power grid.”

All this energy consumption is wreaking havoc on the climate. Cooling systems currently account for approximately 10% of global electricity usage, and over the next three decades, air-conditioning will generate more than 132 gigatons of carbon emissions.

When you break down the climate impact of the AC, 80% of their greenhouse gas emissions comes from the energy they consume, and 20% comes from refrigerants, according to Iain Campbell, a senior fellow at RMI, which focuses on reducing the world’s energy consumption. These refrigerants contain greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are thousands of times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide.

Five years ago, the United States and other countries promised to slash the use of HFCs—which are used in all kinds of cooling products, including refrigerators—by more than 80% over the following three decades. As a result, scientists are working to develop refrigerants that contain less greenhouse gases: Today, brands can use refrigerants like R32, which use significantly less HFCs, or refrigerants that use another chemical called hydrofluoroolefins, which have less impact on global warming.

But just because more sustainable refrigerants exist doesn’t mean the industry will adopt them. That’s where the start-ups come in. In addition to making the air conditioners themselves more sustainable, they’re focused on creating more nimble supply chains, “so we can swap in better and better refrigerants as they come to market,” says Muhammad Saigol, cofounder of July, which launched in 2020.

Soon, it will be possible to use refrigerants that have near-zero global warming potential, says Vince Romanin, founder of Gradient, which is developing a heat pump that reduces the carbon footprint of heating and cooling by 75%. Crucially, not only does this pump make the AC more sustainable, but it allows the unit to sit below the window. This means it doesn’t block light from entering, and the top also serves as a shelf.

There’s a class of refrigerant found in nature—including ammonia, propane, and carbon dioxide—that could be used in air-conditioning units, but these chemicals are toxic, flammable, or require a lot of pressure to work, respectively. So, using them would require reengineering the machine. “There is a lot of debate in our industry around what refrigerants to go to next,” Romanin says. “Our approach is to build in a lot of the safety features that are necessary to use natural refrigerants, so that as standards update, our system is one step ahead of the game and ready to adopt them as soon as possible.”

But there’s still the question of energy consumption. In 2018, RMI partnered with the government of India and Mission Innovation, an organisation devoted to affordable clean energy, to launch the Global Cooling Prize, which invited companies to develop a super-efficient cooling system that had five times lower climate impact than today’s machines. This year, the first winners were selected: Daikin and Gree Electric Appliances. “These winners showed us that we can create very low-impact air conditioners,” says Campbell, who helped oversee the prize in his role at RMI. “It was done with smarter controls, better surface areas, and importantly, the ability to separately manage humidity as well as temperature.”

Typical air conditioners today don’t separately dehumidify the space. But a key finding from the prize is that if a machine has separate controls for sucking moisture out of the air and reducing the temperature, it will use far less energy and create a more comfortable indoor environment. Now, these companies have pledged to bring the air conditioners to market in the next two years.

The path ahead

Over the next three decades, billions of air conditioners will be sold, amounting to one every second. If the industry doesn’t bring more sustainable machines to the market quickly—and if consumers aren’t enticed to buy them – air conditioners will keep contributing to rising temperatures around the globe. While Campbell believes that start-ups have an important role to play, he says governments also need to step in and regulate the industry.

Campbell believes the best hope for greening the air-conditioning sector is for countries to set minimum requirements for machines. This would mean banning refrigerants that have high global warming potential, transitioning to natural refrigerants, and cutting down energy usage significantly. “You only need a few regions to act—China, India, the U.S., and the EU—to say that ACs need to be made to a new standard by 2025 or 2030,” he says. “If you do this, you’ve captured 90% of the market and 90% of manufacturing. Overnight, you’d have an economy of scale churning out products to this new standard, rather than to the worst performing units sold in those markets.”

It’s unclear whether there’s enough political will right now to regulate the air-conditioning sector. There haven’t been any HVAC-specific policies tied to the Green New Deal or any other recent climate proposals. And if the auto industry serves as a model, it could take a long time to drum up the support from government and industry to clean up the sector. It took more than two decades from the time electric vehicles first hit the market to get to where we are right now. But what’s clear is that climate change is already here. If the world doesn’t act quickly, even greater devastation is headed our way.

Source: Fast Company | By Elizabeth Segran