Searing Heatwaves Underscore the Need for More Efficient Cooling

Super-efficient cooling technologies with better dehumidification performance exist. However, a lot still needs to happen to bring these innovations to market and ensure our future cooling demands can be met without making climate change worse.

Last year was the warmest year on record, with climate change adding an extra month of abnormally high temperatures for the average person. This May, countries from India to the United States to Mexico have all experienced dangerous heat waves. Scientists estimate that more than 5 billion people will be exposed to these types of deadly heat conditions by 2050. Extreme heat also creates enormous financial hardship. By 2030, the accumulated global financial loss due to heat stress is expected to reach $2.4 trillion.

How can we keep people safe in the face of these dire conditions? Extreme temperatures — primarily exacerbated by burning fossil fuels — mean that we must shift to clean energy faster while meeting a growing need for keeping people cool through more efficient buildings and cooling solutions for all. However, the most commonly used air conditioners — machines that are expected to offer needed respite from the summer heat and humidity — waste energy, do a poor job at providing comfort by overcooling the air to remove humidity, and ultimately, cost too much to operate for consumers. These air conditioners are expected to drive a 2.5 times jump in cooling energy use by 2050 from current levels, adding over 5 billion ACs in operation by 2050 with the fastest growth in the residential sector.

For example, India is expected to have over 1 billion room AC units in operation by 2050 — making it the world’s fastest-growing AC market. Operating 1 billion ACs would require approximately 600 gigawatts of new power generation capacity — 1.5 times more power than India’s total capacity today. This demand for space cooling will account for 45 percent of India’s peak electricity demand — the demand that is often the most expensive and polluting to meet. It’s a vicious cycle in which meeting the rising need for cooling results in further pollution and overheating of our planet. But can countries like India provide access to cooling to their citizens without accelerating greenhouse gas emissions?

The answer is yes, with a whole-systems approach. This starts with designing more thermally efficient buildings that are well insulated and using advanced materials that can cool a building even when the sun is out. We must also transition to the most energy-efficient air conditioning technologies available and refrigerant gases that have minimal global warming impact. And to do this on a massive scale, policymakers and those guiding them must recognize where the technology performance ceiling is today and what future technologies are on the horizon. When key actors involved in setting policies, developing technologies, and making purchase decisions can align to put efforts toward this whole systems approach, the industry will have the necessary confidence to commercialize innovative cooling solutions.

Enter the Global Cooling Prize

Recognizing the boom in cooling demand and that the emissions impact of this air conditioning growth could be neutralized by developing solutions with five times lower climate impact, RMI, along with the Government of India’s Department of Science and Technology and Mission Innovation, initiated the Global Cooling Prize. In 2021, two teams won the prize for their innovations. These teams developed prototypes that went through extensive testing and multiple protocols simulating real-world operation. They both exceeded the prize criteria of reducing five times the amount of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to typical air conditioner units. They also delivered efficient dehumidification — a key aspect for human comfort and health — while significantly lowering lifecycle costs.

However, these promising models remain out of reach to consumers today and several barriers still need to be overcome to bring them to market. Even for buyers who consider lifecycle costs and emissions in their purchases, the current testing protocol — which is the basis of assigning performance ratings — is incomplete, leaving the value of more climate-friendly products hidden from buyers. These testing protocols must be fixed in tandem with enacting new policies.

Laying the Groundwork for New Metrics and Policy

It is only through policy action that we can achieve a rational market focused on lifecycle impacts of AC units; but policy must be informed by coalitions working without profit or market incumbency bias, and who know how to work alongside industry.

One of the foundational policy actions needed is updating the AC testing standards and performance rating systems that recognize products that are designed for real-world operation. In May 2022 — building on lessons learned from the Global Cooling Prize, and with support of the Clean Cooling Collaborative (CCC) — RMI, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Global Cooling Efficiency Program, and India’s Center for Advanced Research in Building Science and Energy at CEPT University embarked on an initiative to develop performance metrics and associated test methods to pave the way for bringing next-generation AC units to the marketplace.

The goal of this initiative is to provide scientific data to the organizations that develop testing standards and design labeling programs so that the efficiency benefits from better dehumidification and from high efficiency technologies can be fully captured by future standards.

Doing so will give manufacturers a more complete target to design for and enable the consumers to make better informed purchasing decisions.

This combined with creative market and financing mechanisms such as reducing the tax on super-efficient ACs will be crucial in overcoming the barrier of fixation on first cost and help bring more efficient cooling appliances to more people.

To give further impetus to this effort, CCC along with RMI and partners formed a coalition called the Global Cooling Efficiency Accelerator. As a broad-based collaborative, the Accelerator is working on establishing the right pre-conditions to address several supply and demand barriers to make these products commercially available. The Accelerator also kicked-off field testing of room AC units in Palava City, India, with contributions from the Lodha Group — India’s largest real estate developer. We are currently collecting data on AC performance, in the lab and field, aiming to provide insights this year to help inform policy actions and address barriers to adoption of super-efficient air conditioners in the market.

A Cooling Win-Win

In a warming world where rapid urbanization and rising incomes will drive significant demand for cooling, it’s clear we need to accelerate a market shift to super-efficient AC technologies that are better for the power grids, environment, and economy and that will save consumers money. It’s a win-win scenario for everyone. Accelerating this market shift will be critical if we are to meet the targets of the Global Cooling Pledge that was announced at COP28.

We encourage all actors in the cooling industry — government, policymakers, nonprofits, and AC manufacturers — to come together and demonstrate their leadership at this critical moment to confront the climate crisis and provide people with healthy, comfortable, and safe homes and buildings.