This week, Californians were reminded of one of the most vexing paradoxes of global warming. With temperatures well above 110 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas Tuesday night, hundreds of thousands of state residents received beeping text alerts and strained under the weight of millions of air conditioning units. notified that the power grid in which it is located is about to collapse. Save power now, get text alerts, or face rolling blackouts.

Consumers saved electricity, and the state’s grid survived the record heat wave relatively unscathed. Still, as temperatures rise globally, more people will need to install air conditioning.However AC units sold today can actually exacerbate global warming. Hot days draw a lot of electricity from the grid, and chemical refrigerants can accelerate global warming.

This is how researchers and startups We want to create a new state of the art AC unit. AC technology has seen only “progressive improvements over the past 100 years,” said Ankit Kalanki, manager of Third Derivative, a climate technology accelerator co-founded by energy think tank RMI. “There has been no significant change in innovation.”

The good news is that companies are rushing to develop more efficient ACs. The question is whether they will be ready in time.

Current AC ain’t gonna cut it

Over the next few decades, the global demand for air conditioning is expected to skyrocket. According to the International Energy Agency, the number of AC units in buildings worldwide should reach 5.6 billion units by 2050, from about 2 billion units today.

But all this AC will put an unprecedented strain on the power grid, unless the efficiency of air conditioners is improved. Air conditioners and fans already account for about 10% of global electricity consumption. On very hot days, the AC efficiency decreases as the unit has to do more work to move heat from indoors to outdoors. During a heatwave, millions of people go home and turn on their air conditioners at the same time somewhere between 4pm and 9pm. In that case, air conditioners can account for a whopping 60-70% of electricity demand. Shake the grid like California.

Meanwhile, chemicals known as refrigerants, a key component of modern air conditioners, have been a thorn in the air for decades. AC works by exposing a liquid refrigerant, a chemical with a low boiling point, to the hot indoor air. The heat causes the refrigerant to evaporate and become a gas, cooling the air. The compressor then turns the refrigerant back into liquid and the process repeats.

The problem is that air conditioners can leak refrigerant not only while they are in use, but more commonly when they are discarded. Early ACs were mostly made of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). This was the cause of a hole in the ozone layer, one of the first truly global climate concerns. CFCs were phased out by the 1987 Montreal Protocol (an international treaty to combat the depletion of the ozone hole) and eventually replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).

But HFCs have their own problems. They are greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term. Amendments to the Montreal Protocol will dramatically phase out HFCs by the mid-2040s. On the one hand, they still contribute to global warming.

There are many ways to make existing AC technology more efficient. Some newer AC units use alternative refrigerants that have less global warming potential than other hydrofluorocarbons, such as the refrigerant known as R-32, and require less energy to compress, thus saving power doing. Other units use a technique known as “variable speed compressors” that allow the unit to run in different settings. The compressor speeds up when it’s sweltering at 100 degrees Fahrenheit and slows down when it’s only 85 degrees Fahrenheit. This saves you money on your electricity and utility bills.

And more advanced models are coming soon. Kalanki was one of the leaders of the He RMI initiative known as the Global Cooling Prize. 5 times Better suited to the climate than existing models. Two companies, GREE Electric and Daikin Industries, were awarded side by side. Both used traditional vapor compression technology, but with improved refrigerants and clever designs that could change settings depending on the temperature outside.

Other companies, start-ups, and researchers are investigating whether vapor compression can be phased out altogether. A startup called Blue Frontier uses a liquid that sucks up moisture from the air, stores it in tanks, and controls its temperature. According to the company, this approach could save up to 60% of the electricity needed to run AC year-round. A group of researchers at Harvard University have also developed an air conditioning prototype called coldSNAP. The prototype uses no coolant, but a special coating on the ceramic frame that evaporates water and cools the interior space without adding moisture to the air. “The energy consumption of these systems is much lower because there is no vapor compression system and no energy to release and try to compress the refrigerant,” said Jonathan Grinham, one of his researchers on the project. says.

what to look for when buying

Some of these newer designs may take years to come to market, and when they do, they may still be more expensive than traditional ACs. But in the meantime, Kalanki says there are still plenty of options for purchasing more efficient AC units. “The challenge is very little adoption.” Most consumers just look at the list price of an air conditioning unit and buy the more expensive unit up front, saving money in the long run. He argues that we are ignoring the fact that we can.

He recommends that buyers look at three things when considering an AC unit: These metrics will let consumers know if their unit is likely to charge thousands of dollars in electricity bills in the future, or if it will unduly exacerbate climate change problems.

Ultimately, the government will need to set stricter performance standards for air conditioners, he added. all Not only high-end air conditioners, but also air conditioners on the market are efficient and safe for the planet. “There are regulations for setting air conditioning floors,” he said. “But that floor is a little too low.”

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