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How Air Conditioning Is Warming The World

Sunday, July 25, 2021

/ by mansuralisaha

 The News Cover: This June was the hottest in American history. The 116-degree heat melted power cables in Portland, Oregon, smashed previous temperature records. warms, more and more people are installing air conditioning. And without stricter efficiency standards, it could more than double between now and 2040. Globally, it's expected that 4 billion people will buy their first air conditioner by 2050. But air conditioning itself is a major contributor to global warming. It uses a massive amount of electricity and can leak potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, You actually will get into this pretty strong feedback effect where you know, it's hotter, people want more air conditioning, and it just gets worse and worse, Altogether, building operations, that is heating, cooling, and lighting, account for 28% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions. That's more than the entire transportation sector. We realized that we were making progress on the transportation side, we were making progress on the generation side, but the elephant in the room was the fact that buildings used so much energy and emitted so much carbon and there was no real solution for it. 

But SkyCool, Gradient, and a number of other companies are working on it, figuring out how to apply new technologies to the traditionally inflexible heating and cooling industry, finance the upfront costs, communicate the value to property owners and make sure that it's all done equitably. The reason why people aren't adopting these technologies is that one, it's too much of a hassle, and two, it's too expensive. And so we set out to solve those two problems. We're trying to upgrade and modernize and digitize. How do you apply computer science to the problem of analyzing buildings? And if you can do that, can you get Wall Street and pension funds and infrastructure funds and the federal government to invest the trillions of dollars that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? The energy that it takes to heat and cool buildings, and where that energy comes from, don't get a ton of attention, but this is how it works. AC runs on electricity, a lot of it. A small window AC unit can consume more power than four refrigerators, and central AC in a single home consumes more power than 15. While the U.S. electric grid is getting greener as more renewables come online, most of the country's electricity is still generated by fossil fuels, with natural gas being the most common. And in places like China and India, where the urban middle class is soaring and demand for AC units is too, their electric grids rely heavily on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel of all. And so right now, between 5 and 10% of people in India have air conditioners. 

And by 2050, the expectation is that 70 to 80% of the population will. And so that's literally going to be almost a billion people that are going to buy air conditioners. Right now, air conditioning accounts for about 8.5% of global electricity consumption. And researchers have predicted that by mid-century, the global energy demand for cooling will overtake the global demand for heating. But currently, heating still reigns supreme in terms of energy use, and that's a big problem too. Central heating for commercial buildings and homes mainly relies on natural gas, which means a greener electric grid won't solve the problem here. Basically, we need to find a fundamentally different way to heat buildings. And while better insulation and ventilation should be implemented, the crux of the issue is how to electrify space and water heating. 

A lot of people are very familiar with the need to electrify cars and vehicles, but there's a much smaller focus on buildings. And there's been very slow adoption of existing technologies, that the current rate and pace that we're at, it will actually take 500 years to retrofit every home in America. And that pace is way too slow. Many companies in this space are particularly excited about heat pumps, an all-electric device that despite its name, can both heat and cool homes much more efficiently than traditional systems, and have seen technical improvements in recent years that allow them to work better in cold climates. Essentially, they work just like an air conditioner that can run in reverse. Basically what a heat pump does is it lets the internal refrigerant cycle go in both directions. 

And so it's the addition of a valve that can send the hot refrigerant to the indoor side instead of the outdoor side. It pulls heat from the cold outdoor air and it pushes it into your room. When it works as an AC, it pulls heat out of your room and then pushes it to the outdoors. You can plug it into your windows or walls or there are giant ones that you plug into your roof and the ventilation system of your building. But the key is they run on 100% electricity. Baird is CEO of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based climate startup working to retrofit buildings in low-income neighborhoods. The company installs heat pumps for no money down and property owners pay BlocPower back over a 10 to 15 year period. These monthly payments are ideally offset by the energy efficiency savings that owners see on their energy bills. Heat pumps are two to four times typically more efficient than traditional technologies. 

That's a big win for the environment, especially when it comes to heating since tapping into the U.S.'s partially green electric grid is far better than the alternative. Even today, if you replace your fossil fuel heating system with an electric heat pump, given the carbon intensity of the electricity grid, you can reduce emissions by about 70%. As we move to a cleaner electricity grid that number will only get better. Romania's company, San Francisco-based Gradient, is building heat pumps that the customer can install themselves in their window, thereby eliminating high install costs, which Romanin says account for about two-thirds of a heat pump's total price.

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