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Energy Currents
A Blog by Enerdynamics

Why the World Needs More Energy Efficient Air Conditioning

by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator

“We had never used an AC. Our electricity bill has gone up, but it’s worth it if we can sleep.” ~ Prerna Gulati, New Delhi resident, quoted in the Wall Street Journal

As world consumers enter the middle class, one of the appliances they desire most is an air conditioner (AC). This wish to enjoy comforts that those of us in the developed economies have enjoyed for years is unstoppable, yet without a change in current technologies it will put significant strain on energy resources and the environment. 

According to the International Energy Administration (IEA), the number of home air conditioners in developing economies will increase from 600 million AC units today to 2.5 billion units by 2040[1]. Clearly the efficiency of air conditioners will be an important factor in future electricity growth.

Apartment block in India

Apartment block in Mumbai, India

Despite electricity usage in developed countries that has been relatively flat in recent years, electricity growth worldwide is forecast by the IEA to increase by over 60% between 2017 and 2040[2]. The bulk of this growth will come from developing countries, with a major contribution from just China and India:

Global electric demand by region

source: IEA World Energy Outlook 2018

According to a recent study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory[3], air conditioners could take up half of India’s peak capacity by 2030 without improvements in efficiency. Such growth would require extensive investment in expensive peak capacity, and also challenge efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study during the United Kingdom’s heatwave in July 2019 indicated that the carbon intensity of the power system increased by 50% during some of the hottest days[4]:

 Emissions intensity during UK heatwave in 2019

source: The Race to Zero Emissions: The Heatwave Edition, July 26, 2019

So what can be done to mitigate these impacts? The key will be improving the efficiency of air-conditioning units and making new highly efficient units cost-effective enough that consumers will spend the money to buy the efficient new technologies. There is precedent. India had huge success in propagating highly efficient LED light-bulbs into the market through use of bulk purchases and innovative financing by Energy Efficiency Services, an arm of the India government. It is estimated that more than 1 billion high-efficiency bulbs have been sold in India. 

But can this be achieved with a more costly investment like air conditioning units? According to Richard Branson, billionaire and founder of the Virgin label, air conditioning is “based on a technology that has not fundamentally changed since its invention (or rather, accidental discovery) over 100 years ago.”[5] Branson believes that two fundamentals are required: governments aggressively raising energy efficiency standards; and innovation to push technology to new levels. As Branson points out, commercial LED lighting has achieved nearly 70% of maximum theoretical efficiency, solar panels have reached 40%, but air conditioners have achieved a meager 14%. 

To encourage innovation, Branson has worked with the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Indian government to initiate the Global Cooling Prize. This innovation challenge offers up to $3 million in prizes to companies or individuals who can develop air conditioning technology that meets specific energy efficiency and environmental goals; $2 million will be spread among 10 finalists with the remaining $1 million delivered to the final winner. If you have ideas on how to improve air conditioning, now is your chance. And for the rest of us without innovations to offer, we can all hope that efforts to improve air conditioning efficiency will come sooner rather than later.    

Interested in learning more about energy efficiency and other demand side management opportunities that exist today in energy? See Enerdynamics’ online course Introduction to Demand Response Fundamentals. This course was co-developed with the Peak Load Management Alliance (PLMA) and presents a detailed introduction to the fundamentals of demand response. Contact us at 866-765-5432 ext. 700 or for more details.


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