What's The Deal With Air Conditioning? / by Positive Energy

Greetings building science enthusiasts, 

Miguel here with a brief mid-summer musing. It's hot out so I figured we could talk about air conditioners for just a moment. Nothing too deep, just a simple few thoughts to stir that summer mind-stew for you. 

Air Conditioning The New York Times

The New York Times just published an piece on climate change and the role that ever growing demand for global air conditioning plays in the carbon puzzle that we, as a society, find ourselves trying to work out. It's called "If You Fix This, You Fix a Big Piece of the Climate Puzzle" and it's a quick read if you've got a little time. For those of you who want a digested version, we've provided the big points below. 

Fixing air-conditioning is, let’s face it, not the most exciting solution to climate change.

Perhaps for the same reason that remodeling a kitchen is more enticing than replacing a water heater, devising greener refrigerant chemicals will never make headlines like solar installations or electric cars do. You just can’t take a great selfie with the inside of an air-conditioner.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

This is a decent way to frame the importance of HVAC, but there's obviously so much more to be said. The salient point for me is that HVAC kind of falls flat in people's ears because it's not as exciting as the other sophisticated technology in our lives. Nobody stands in line for the new designer series of an air conditioner like they do for the newest iPhone. 

I can't count how many times my friends' eyes have glazed over when someone we meet in a social outing asks me what I do. I have to unpack quite a lot to explain the relevance of HVAC to the global economy and how architectural and construction processes work.

There are a whole lot of people in the world who don't care about air conditioners beyond whether they work and keep them cool and I don't blame them. It's not exactly Game Of Thrones material (by the way, if you're a fan and didn't know, the new season premiere is this Sunday. Get with it, already). But it's precisely because people find it a little boring that I am so excited that The Times published a front page piece on HVAC's role in curbing climate change. 

These little boxes matter a whole lot.

New research from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California indicates that adding improved efficiency in refrigeration and phasing out fluorinated gases used for cooling, as mandated by international agreement, could eliminate a full degree Celsius of warming by 2100. Given that the “business as usual” trajectory leads to 4 to 5 degrees Celsius of warming, that is shaving off a pretty big slice.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

Lawrence Berkeley National Labs just keeps bringing in the heavy hitting data points for us. This is a big deal and should be a huge reason more people would care about HVAC. If you don't talk to your kids about thermal comfort and energy flows, who will? 

That’s because from India to the Philippines to South Africa, air-conditioners are increasingly a must-have item. Less than 10 percent of homes in India have units, but air-conditioning makes up 40 percent to 60 percent of the country’s electricity demand in major cities like New Delhi. Businesses and homeowners in Asia and Africa are expected to buy an estimated 700 million air-conditioners by 2030, and 1.6 billion by midcentury. Without major changes in the way we cool ourselves, those units will in turn crank up the global furnace.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

Bottom line - air conditioning is no longer subject to an American-specific product demand. Much of the developing world is seeing massive HVAC adoption, not always with the most forethought to how to do things well. 

Efficiency doesn’t require a global treaty. It does, however, call for new regulatory policies on manufacturing standards and labeling.

It matters, researchers say, because cooling has a direct relationship with the building of coal-fired power plants to meet peak demand. If more air-conditioners are humming in more homes and offices, then more capacity will be required to meet the demand. So 1.6 billion new air-conditioners by 2050 means thousands of new power plants will have to come on line to support them.

The Lawrence Berkeley study argues that even a 30 percent improvement in efficiency could avoid the peak load equivalent of about 1,500 power plants by 2030.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

This is good stuff. Efficiency needs to be a part of the conversation, but we also need to talk about how we deliver that system in the systems of architecture and construction. Don't let your  guard down just because something is "efficient." Demand more of your project delivery. 

The countries driving the bulk of demand for air-conditioning — China, Brazil, India, and Indonesia — have energy efficiency improvement policies like labels and incentive programs. But improvements to China’s policies could have sweeping gains, because it is the key exporter to countries primarily in Southeast Asia, where demand is growing. India’s Ministry of Power is working to develop a program for bulk purchases of superefficient air-conditioners, which may include refrigerant alternatives to HFCs.
— Lisa Friedman, The New York Times

Policy matters. A lot. Be civically engaged and let your representatives know how we can lead the world in energy policy, especially when it comes to air conditioning. And most importantly, don't forget that these air conditioners are meant to provide comfort and clean air to people. It's crucial to continue the discussion on indoor air quality and thermal comfort rather than just diving down the rabbit hole of energy efficiency. They're not mutually exclusive ideas and, when thought about properly, actually can improve in tandem. 

Want to know more about the VRF systems that are so popular around the world? Check out our podcast episode about that very topic.