That’s already happened in some places. In just 15 years, urban areas of China went from just a few percentage points of air conditioning penetration to exceeding 100 percent — “i.e. more than one room air conditioner (AC) per urban household,” according to a recent report on the global AC boom by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And air conditioner sales are now increasing in India, Indonesia and Brazil by between 10 and 15 percent per year, the research noted. India, a nation of 1.25 billion people, had just 5 percent air conditioning penetration in the year 2011.
A study last year similarly found “a close relationship between household income and air conditioner adoption, with ownership increasing 2.7 percentage points per $1,000 of annual household income.” For Mexico in particular, it therefore projected a stupendous growth of air conditioning over the 21st century, from 13 percent of homes having it to 71 to 81 percent of homes.
“We expect that the demand for cooling as economies improve, particularly in hot climates, is going to be an incredible driver of electricity requirements,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in an interview.
In most ways, of course, this is a very good thing: Protecting people from intense heat — a town in India this month saw temperatures exceed 123 degrees Fahrenheit — is essential for their health and well-being. It’s just that it’s going to come with a huge energy demand, and potentially huge carbon emissions to boot.
Overall, the Berkeley report projects that the world is poised to install 700 million air conditioners by 2030, and 1.6 billion of them by 2050. In terms of electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions, that’s like adding several new countries to the world.
To try to address this problem, Moniz’s department is participating in the Advanced Cooling Challenge, which is to be launched Thursday in San Francisco at the 7th Clean Energy Ministerial, a global meeting of national energy policy leaders. The goal will be to find creative solutions to lessen the energy and climate impact of an unstoppable trend toward more global air conditioning — by making air conditioners much more energy efficient, and also less dependent on HFCs or hydrofluorocarbons as refrigerants, because these substances themselves act as an extremely powerful greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.
“A 25 to 30 percent improvement in efficiency, which we certainly think is technologically possibly, can have an enormous difference in terms of, especially, peak demand for electricity going forward,” Moniz said.
That’s partly a function of making already efficient technologies more widely available. The Berkeley Laboratory report found, for instance, that some mini-split air conditioners available today in Korea are already 50 percent more energy efficient than the standard model on the market.
The biggest country for air conditioning growth, and associated greenhouse gas emissions, is projected to be India, said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, which focuses on short-term, high impact fixes to the climate problem. The country experiences not only extremely hot temperatures, but has relatively little air conditioning installed so far — indeed, in coming years India hopes to first bring electricity itself to several-hundred-million people.
“If they can focus on the efficient machines, they can save a tremendous amount of power,” Zaelke said.
Zaelke and Moniz said that the real impact for the planetary greenhouse will be if the world can combine a restriction on emissions of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol, the global treaty originally adopted in 1987 to address ozone depleting substances like CFCs, with greater air conditioner efficiency overall. The Protocol “has never failed to do its job once it has gotten its assignment,” Zaelke said.
The Berkeley Laboratory study found that if the world can shift toward 30 percent more efficient air conditioners, and phase out HFCs at the same time, that could effectively offset the construction of as many as 1,550 peak power plants.
It further found that in terms of emissions avoided, this approach would have an even bigger impact than huge renewable energy projects – saving eight times as many emissions as China’s Three Gorges dam, and two times as many as India’s solar initiative. By the year 2050 for the globe as a whole, meanwhile, the total avoided carbon dioxide equivalent emissions could amount to some 4 billion tons annually — more than any single country other than China and the United States currently emit — with 1 billion tons of emissions avoided in India alone.
Cumulatively, by 2050, the report finds that the world could avoid 98 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. That figure is not only massive, but would represent fully 10 percent of the roughly 1,000 billion tons of CO2 that we could still emit from the year 2011 forward, according to scientists, and still have betting odds of keeping the planet’s warming below the international target of 2 degrees Celsius.
The HFC shift seems set to play out under the Montreal Protocol. The question then becomes, how do you shift the global air conditioner market to favor far greater efficiency? According to Moniz, the world needs both research and development, but also businesses that sell or purchase large volumes of air conditioning — say, hotels — to commit to only carrying highly efficient models. And then, the whole global market could shift.
If all this happens, he said, “that family in pick-your-favorite-non-temperate-zone country, that family is going to see its best opportunity in these newer, super efficient, non-HFC kinds of cooling technologies. … So that’s the idea.”
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