Keeping Our Cool

Air conditioning and a warming planet. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.

Ivan Amato
Oct 14, 2019 · 23 min read

By Ivan Amato

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By 2050, the world’s count of room air-conditioners, such as those shown on this building in China, is expected to soar from today’s 1.2 billion units to some 5.6 billion units. (Image source: Sławomir Kowalewski/ Pixabay)

THE MOONSHOT As the world warms over the coming years, and as urbanization and incomes rise, the number of room air-conditioning units are expected to soar from today’s 1.2 billion to some 4.5 billion by 2050. More air conditioners beget more global warming begets more air conditioners. Breaking this vicious cycle will take a combination of more efficiency cooling technology with dramatically less climate impact along with economic, policy, educational, and other societal mechanisms that can conspire to deploy the improved technology on a planetary scale.

THE PHILANTHROPY OPPORTUNITY Philanthropic giving has enabled coalition-building among the private, environmental, government, industry and other stakeholders who must conspire to deliver the 21st century’s intensifying cooling needs without worsening the global warming crisis. Philanthropy also has underwritten the Global Cooling Prize to spur innovators to develop new cooling technology that consumes less electricity and relies on more climate-friendly refrigerants. Only with more innovation and better cooling technology, smarter design of cooling systems, and support to accelerate the deployment of these efforts and technologies will humanity prevent its soaring cooling needs from undermining its simultaneous goal to slow and stop global warming.

In the 10 seconds it takes you to read this opening sentence, about 30 brand new electricity-guzzling air conditioners, each one coursing with greenhouse-gas refrigerants, will have been plugged in around the world. This rate of plugging-in of cooling appliances will be relentless for a long time. In the next three decades, the air-conditioning industry is slated for massive and persistent growth. In a climate-warming, heatwave-rife world, the cooling industry is fated to be a huge market winner. And that’s a set-up for a vicious-cycle the world needs none of: The more people use air-conditioners to cool their inside spaces, the more those same appliances will worsen global warming, which will just send more of us to buy more air conditioners.

A recent report by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) indicates that by 2050 the world count of room air-conditioning (RAC) units (window and split-units with external compressors coupled with internal air-handlers) will soar from today’s 1.2 billion units to some 4.5 billion units by 2050. The United Nation’s Environment Programme estimates the RAC count will be 5.5 billion by then while the number of home refrigerators, a related cooling technology, will double during that time to 2 billion units. The International Institute for Refrigeration (IIR) tallies the current global count of refrigeration, AC, and heat-pump units — all of which use similar technology — at 3 billion, which IIR says collectively consume “about 17% of the overall electricity used worldwide.”

“All new solar generation deployed globally last year — a record year for solar energy deployment — was completely used up by the new air conditioners that were plugged in.” — Jessica Brown, Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program

Increasing urbanization, a growing middle class with money to spend, and more people around the world confronted by ever-more days of debilitating heat make an irresistible pitch for a constructed landscape rife with artificial cooling. “All new solar generation deployed globally last year — a record year for solar energy deployment — was completely used up by the new air conditioners that were plugged in,” says Jessica Brown, director of the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), a philanthropic program aimed to reduce the carbon footprint of cooling.

The count of newly installed air conditions since you began reading has topped 450.

Almost all of these new units rely on the same vapor-compression technology whose roots extend to the 19th century and that first rose to mass-market status after World War II. The 17% portion of global energy production devoted to cooling is just one of air conditioning’s two environmental sucker punches. Another more direct one is that the refrigerant fluids in these units, much of which ultimately vent into the atmosphere, are greenhouse gases hundreds or thousands of times more effective at trapping solar energy than carbon dioxide. According to the United Nations, almost 30% of these coolants end up leaking into the atmosphere where they contribute close to 7% of the global burden of greenhouse gas.

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(Image source: Chromatograph/Unsplash)

“If we turned the entire global population vegetarian overnight, replanted two-thirds of our degraded tropical forests, and doubled the world’s bicycling commuting it would just barely neutralize the negative impact of this one piece of technology,” Iain Campbell and William Sisson wrote late last year in gtm:, an online news source for the electricity industry produced by Greentech Media. Campbell is a Senior Fellow with RMI (which is devoted to realizing a low-carbon energy culture) and a 30-year-veteran of the air-conditioning industry; Sisson is a former global projects manager for longtime AC giant Carrier Corporation whose founder, Willis Carrier, was one of the industry’s pioneers. Their article in gtm: posted the same day — November 12, 2018 — that a consortium the authors are part of announced a $3 million Global Cooling Prize.

RMI, Mission Innovation (a multinational initiative to accelerate clean energy innovation), and the government of India, which alone is projected to install 1 billion new AC units by 2050, initiated the Prize. Billionaire Richard Branson, known for his Virgin brand, is among the Global Cooling Prize’s backers. The moonshot-caliber goal of the Cooling Prize is to spur the innovation it will take to deliver the ever-rising need for cooling without worsening climate change. This is a must because AC no longer is a discretionary luxury; for many, it is becoming a necessity for health and productivity.

The Cooling Prize joins related cooling-sector efforts, most notably the philanthropy-funded K-CEP, a global multi-pronged initiative that began taking shape in 2016 and since has designated some $60 million in donor money to helping developing countries transition to energy-efficient, climate-friendly, and affordable cooling solutions. K-CEP works in tandem with the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol. Under the Kigali Amendment, 197 countries committed to cut the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — potent greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning — by more than 80% over the next 30 years. This effort alone has the potential to avoid up to 0.4° C of global warming by the end of the century, and up to 0.5° C if the phasedown is accelerated, says Brown. K-CEP focuses on the energy efficiency of cooling in order to significantly increase the climate and development benefits of the Kigali Amendment to phase down the HFC greenhouse gases.

“Without cooling, modern life would be impossible,” notes Vitalij Pecharsky, a materials scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa where he has been overseeing a long-view research quest to identify and develop so-called caloric materials. Like many would-be cooling innovators, Pecharsky is driven by the global need for ever more cooling and his concern about the negative global-warming consequences of supplying it with just lots more of today’s technology.

“Without cooling, modern life would be impossible.” — Vitalij Pecharsky, U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory

In an interview Pecharsky ticked off a partial list of categories where cooling is a must: keeping food from spoiling; making it possible to live and work in otherwise debilitating heat and humidity; providing health care and maintaining cold chains to keep vaccines and medicines stable; and chilling the massive server farms of our utterly internetted and info-dependent times. He is betting that caloric materials will become solutions to the world’s growing cooling needs. By virtue of these materials’ internal crystalline structures, they can produce cooling by pulsing them with electricity, pressure, magnetic fields, and other physical stimuli: No greenhouse-gas refrigerants are required. He doesn’t expect caloric materials to transform the global cooling landscape soon, but he hopes to lay the groundwork for technological solutions that might follow stop-gap solutions that the Global Cooling Prize and K-CEP are trying to accelerate into reality.

For many of those driven by the challenge of providing the world with climate-friendly cooling, coming up with solutions amounts to a moral imperative.

The people who are going to be most hurt by an increasing number of dangerous-heat days are the elderly, the young, and the poor, especially in developing countries, Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during much of the Obama Administration, said in a keynote address in May at a conference in Washington, D.C. The event served as the U.S. launch for the Global Cooling Prize and a forum on breakthrough cooling technology and climate change. “This is about our moral responsibility to take action,” McCarthy said. She told the gathering that a third of the world’s population already live in places where heat has become intolerable. “In a few years, it will be half of the population,” she said.

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A public service announcement about managing heatwaves posted this past June on India’s National Disaster Management Authority’s Facebook page.

To be sure, the cooling conundrum is just one perilous strand of the climate-change medusa, but it is a thick and dangerous one demanding a moonshot-caliber effort to cut it down to size. Heat waves already kill 12,000 people annually, according to the United Nations Environment Program. In early June of this year, parts of India, whose growing middle class is expected to fuel perhaps the largest spike in cooling demand, registered near-record-high temperatures topping 120° F. The country’s National Disaster Management Agency told its citizens that sleeping under a wet sheet could help beat the heat. As the middle-class of India and other developing countries expands, AC units — not wet sheets — will become the go-to solution. China also is ascendant in this space, now manufacturing some 70% of the world’s new RACs. Its own citizenry accounts for 22% of the world’s installed cooling capacity. In coming years, health and productivity issues — people don’t work well or at all in sweltering conditions — will drive this exponentially expanding demand for cooling.

The Cooling Prize organizers calculate that delivering ever more cooling capacity without exacerbating global warming will require new cooling technologies and practices that by 2050 will need to impose at most one-fifth of the climate impact compared to the current best-selling residential AC units in India, a pivotal country in this context as it is expected to account for 15% of the planet’s added cooling demand. That performance spec is based on the projection that the combination of increased energy efficiency (80% of the fivefold performance-improvement target) and new refrigerants (20% of the climate-impact target) with less or no greenhouse consequences could fully compensate for the massive increase of in-grid air-conditioning by 2050.

Given the magnitude of the problem, the $3 million that Global Cooling Prize is dangling to spur innovation might seem small. But Campbell told The Moonshot Catalog that the real financial carrot of the prize resides in the partnership that the winning technology developers will receive for ushering their innovations toward the ultimate finish line of massive-scale production and deployment of next-generation cooling appliances. That makes the competition potentially a many-billion-dollar revenue proposition, he says. Far more important, he adds, is that the prize is helping to create an innovation community with its sights on solving a major component of the decarbonization and global warming challenge.

“By 2050, space cooling alone will consume as much electricity as China and India today and much of the world’s projected renewables capacity.” — The Cool Coalition

Adding to the ranks of this community is a large-scale and far-reaching network of over 100 partners known as The Cool Coalition. Spearheaded by K-CEP and the United Nations Environment Programme, and launched in April, the Coalition’s partners include Sustainable Energy for All’s Cooling for All initiative, RMI, industry representatives, and stakeholders from academe, finance, cities, national governments, and various international organizations. In September, at the global gathering in New York for the Climate Action Summit, which the U.N. Secretary General convened, the Cool Coalition succeeded in drawing worldwide attention to the under-acknowledged role that cooling has in both the problem of global warming and the need to cope with and manage its consequences. In a press statement, the Coalition starkly articulated its collective sense of urgency: “By 2050, space cooling alone will consume as much electricity as China and India today and much of the world’s projected renewables capacity.”

Central to the Coalition’s platform is that sustainably meeting the need for cooling on a global scale will take more than just technological innovations. It also will depend on a diversity of concerted, albeit locally-tuned, actions including:

· Establishing comprehensive national cooling plans like the ones that 26 countries have agreed to publish

· Pushing up efficiency of cooling equipment through policies such as minimum energy performance standards (MEPS)

· Deploying consumer-facing incentive programs that help foot the up-front costs of more advanced and efficient cooling technology

· Developing policy platforms that improve access to efficient, climate-friendly cooling for those most at risk

· Offering education and training programs to build know-how and capacity within governments and businesses to address emissions from cooling

· And mobilizing other sociopolitical actions to pull of the moonshot-caliber goal of achieving energy efficient, climate-friendly cooling for all

Meanwhile, starting this very minute, says Vance Payne, a mechanical engineer with the Heating, Ventilation, Air-Conditioning, and Refrigeration Equipment Performance Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, billions of current AC users can begin contributing to the cause by embracing higher thermostat settings and knowing how to program their thermostats, purchasing the most efficient systems available, and ensuring that right-sized and appropriately-designed cooling systems are installed, maintained, and operated properly.

“There is so much we can do to advance cooling efficiency without technological innovation that can get us wins very rapidly,” says K-CEP director Jessica Brown.

The count of newly installed air conditions since you began reading is more than 1,600.

Sweat the Physics

Your air conditioner, refrigerator, heat pump, dehumidifier, and even you as a human being achieve cooling effects based on the same physical principles. In your case, when you are hot or active enough, your sweat glands get to work and leak an aqueous film onto your skin. There, the molecules in your sweat absorb enough of your body heat to break free of their liquid context, vaporize, and flee from your body, carrying away the heat they had absorbed. That cools you down.

In your household cooling appliances, synthetic refrigerant fluids serve as the basis of artificial sweating systems that achieve more intense cooling than biological evolution has had to muster. Like sweat, these refrigerants vaporize from their liquid states by absorbing heat from one place and then carrying it somewhere else. As these fluids circulate in, say, a closed manifold girdling a refrigerator’s chamber or an air conditioner’s evaporator, the fluids’ molecules absorb heat from the surrounding air and materials. As they do that, the refrigerant vaporizes. That chills the air in a room or the food in the fridge. The now warm and gaseous refrigerant circulates in the closed system to a condenser and compressor duo, which transforms the gas back into a liquid, preparing the way for the next cooling cycle. Known as the vapor-compression cycle and first patented over 160 years ago, this engineering principle is at the heart of most of the world’s current population of cooling appliances and systems.

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Depicted here is a typical residential central air-conditioning system. An outside condenser/compressor unit liquefies refrigerant that is carrying heat from the inside of the house. As a fan dissipates the heat to the outside air, the unit pumps the liquefied refrigerant back inside the house to an evaporator where the refrigerant chills as it vaporizes. This also chills the air around the evaporator coils as a blower distributes the conditioned air through the venting system. (Diagram courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy)

First installed in factories and industrial settings in the 1880s, cooling technology started proliferating into homes and vehicles in the first third of the 20th century when engineers managed to identify and use refrigerants, such as CFCs (chlorofluorcarbons) and HFCs, which were less toxic and flammable than the earliest refrigerants, such as sulfur dioxide and methyl chloride. Since then, the population of cooling appliances has grown annually by tens of millions of units, summing now globally into billions of units. These include window, mini-split, multi-split, and central air conditioners and heat pumps, rooftop chiller systems on millions of buildings; mobile AC systems in all kinds of vehicles; and both mobile and stationary refrigerators for household, food market, and industrial settings.

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A New York City rooftop jammed with large and small air-chilling units. (Image source: Sergei Akulich/Unsplash)

As Pecharsky and others observe, the delivery of cooling has been a good thing, though it is too frequently overdone to such absurd degrees that people don sweaters inside restaurants, theaters, and workplaces on hot summer days. That illustrates just one of the behavioral shifts — turning up thermostats — that the world’s consumers of cooling will need to adopt and should to do so as of today. Another is making more climate-minded purchasing choices. “The average efficiency of air-conditioners sold today is less than half of what is available on the shelf and one-third of the best available technology,” Brown points out.

U.S. systems average out at about 13% or 14% of what it theoretically could be, for example, and the best-selling unit in India, the one the Cooling Prize’s target is based on, manages an 8% efficiency.

Consumer choices have grid-scale consequences. As much as any human activity, the use of air conditioning influences capacity-planning by utility companies, which have to prepare with peak electricity demand in mind. Those peaks occur on the year’s hottest days when customers turn on or turn up their AC units. In the Middle East and other regions, air-conditioning on hot days can account for most of the region’s electrical demand. If the billions of air-conditioners installed in the coming decades have the same inefficiencies and climate change effects as today’s units, utilities and governments will need to install hundreds of additional and expensive gigawatts of peak power capacity, much of it likely to derive from the burning of fossil fuel.

Currently, most consumers opt for cheaper and less-efficient units even though coughing up more on the front end can buy doubly-efficient units that will cost far less to own and run over the course of the unit’s lifetime. Part of this self-defeating practice is that many consumers lack sufficient money in hand to lay out the higher initial cost. That’s why Brown, Campbell, and others have been supporting incentive programs, such as rebate programs, on-bill financing, “buyers’ clubs,” and public procurement programs that can leverage volume sales to secure lower purchase prices. These programs, Brown says, “don’t require higher upfront costs and most often reduce overall costs.”

NIST’s Payne points out that a lot of current cooling’s inefficiency resides in poor initial system design (too much capacity and vent systems that squander cooling where it is not needed), inadequate maintenance, ignorance about the use and programming of thermostats, lack of sensors and automated control systems that could reduce the delivery of cooling to only those spaces and times when it is needed, and too few buildings that are good at keeping heat in when it is cold and the cold in when it is hot. To highlight the extent of the installation and operation woes alone, Payne refers to an engineering survey of the performance of 13,258 air conditioners in California: It revealed that 67% needed repairs (such as airflow corrections) to bring them to optimal performance levels and that 57% of them were charged with too little or too much refrigerant.

“Companies often spend more on advertising and aesthetics than they do on R&D, and they continue to churn out as many minimally efficient RACs as they can, as cheaply as they can.” — Iain Campbell and William Sisson

Adding to the perfect storm of technology, operating and installation inefficiencies, and counterproductive consumer behavior has been the weakness of regulatory and policy pressures to do cooling better. For example, more effective regulations and policies could require AC companies to make and sell more efficient, more climate-friendly products and make it easier for consumers to buy these more climate-defensive units. With brand and price driving consumer decisions, and regulators pulling punches, Campbell and Sisson point out that “companies often spend more on advertising and aesthetics than they do on R&D, and they continue to churn out as many minimally efficient RACs as they can, as cheaply as they can.”

Cool Tech’s Mandate

That’s where the Global Cooling Prize comes in, Campbell says. It’s based primarily on two criteria. One is that the target AC technology must impose only 20% of the climate impact compared to today’s best-selling system in India. Moreover, the new AC units cannot cost more than twice the cost of the baseline unit (the extra cost should be recoup-able in efficiency-based savings in less than 3 years). Another key criterion is that the final mass-produced units and systems must work well in the context of mid- and high-rise apartment buildings in dense urban settings in a hot and humid climate.

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A Singapore building and its chorus of humming air-conditioners. (Image source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

“We put out what we are trying to achieve and now are letting innovators and industry have at it,” Campbell says, adding that as someone coming from the cooling industry, he knows how audacious of an ask is a five-fold improvement on AC’s climate impact. Says Campbell: “To look for the next-generation technology is like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we hope with the prize the needle will actually find us.”

Getting there will require taking vapor-compression to the edge of the thermodynamic efficiency it can practically deliver. Campbell and others estimate that edge to be about 32% of the maximum theoretical efficiency. That’s four times the efficiency of the Indian reference unit. Success here would deliver 80% of the fivefold reduction in climate-change impact that the Prize seeks to catalyze. Relevant here would be so-called hybrid designs that, for example, salvage waste heat from air conditioners for use in water-heaters, thereby reducing that appliance’s energy consumption. Another hybrid tactic is to couple the air-conditioning with dehumidifying desiccants in which the waste heat from air-conditioning recharges the desiccant material. Cooling insiders refer to humidity as latent heat and its control is a major aspect of delivering effective and energy-efficient cooling.

Getting all of the way to the Prize’s performance targets also will take more climate-friendly refrigerants (or none at all) with low global warming potentials (GWPs). Today’s primary refrigerants, HFCs, are hundreds if not thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Daunting as the Cooling Prize’s challenge is, 139 would-be innovators in 31 countries submitted detailed technical and engineering plans to a panel of judges. On November 15, up to 10 of these contenders will be identified in an award ceremony in New Delhi, India. They will share the Cooling Prize’s initial $2 million of incentive cash to support design work and prototype development. In late 2020, the best performer among these contenders will receive the final $1 million of the prize purse.

“We put out what we are trying to achieve and now are letting innovators and industry have at it.” — Iain Campbell, Rocky Mountain Institute

Campbell told The Moonshot Catalog that some of the design ideas include two-stage cooling in which a conventional vapor/compression-stage is cleverly integrated with a second cooling stage — an enhanced evaporative cycle that effectively cools the condensing unit. Some are looking at innovative coatings for the condensing parts of a system that directly vent the heat in the form of infrared radiation, a process called deep space radiative cooling. Though not well-suited for dense urban deployment where roof space is limited, proposers have come in with “solar thermal cooling” proposals. In these, solar energy collectors cause a liquid refrigerant on a solid sorbent to desorb. That produces a cooling effect — either delivered directly to an air-ventilation system or by way of chilling water first. The now desorbed refrigerant expands into a gas in an evaporator before circulating back to the sorption component. Campbell noted one preliminary proposal, which outlined an early-stage caloric-based solution that, he suggested, eventually could “far exceed our impact criteria.”

Approaches based on caloric materials, the category of solid-state materials that has been Pecharsky’s raison d’etre for decades at the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, feature a complete absence of liquid refrigerants. These materials, which also should be able to deliver cooling more efficiently than vapor compression technology, have names like gadolinium-silicon germanium (an early magnetocaloric material that sparked excitement in the field two decades ago), as well as the more recently introduced lanthanum-iron-silicon hydrides and nickel-titanium alloys, the latter also known as shape-memory alloys. Magnetocaloric materials begin a cooling cycle when their tiny and randomly oriented magnetic domains become aligned due to a magnetic-field pulse. When the pulse goes off, the aligned domains jumble back into random arrangements, a flip-flop that cools the material. Similar entropy-related processes underlie the electrocaloric cooling effects as well as the pressure- and stress-related cooling processes in so-called barocaloric and elastocaloric materials, respectively.

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Solid-state caloric materials generate cooling effects when microdomains within them cycle between more random and more regular arrangements due to oscillations of applied stimuli, such as stress (left), an electric field (center), or a magnetic field (right). (Image source: The Ames Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy)

As Pecharsky sees it, caloric materials and devices eventually should lead to cooling’s version of the incandescent-to-LED replacement for lighting, a shift that delivers the same function to users but far more efficiently and sustainably.

“I could start a company and have commercial magnetocaloric devices within about 18–24 months,” he told The Moonshot Catalog. “I am talking about a drop-in replacement for the conventional compressor — a box on a refrigerator or air conditioner. All of the auxiliary things remain the same; nothing else changes.” Unfortunately, he lamented, the caloric materials that are available and can operate in relevant temperature ranges are too expensive for the marketplace. “I would have to charge six times more than a vapor compressor,” which typically costs less than $100, Pecharsky said. “In today’s market, I would not be competitive.” Adding to the challenge of delivering practical calorics-based technologies is the current inability to cycle the materials with magnetic and electric fields that oscillate with sufficient frequencies–tens of times per second rather than the current rate of one or two cycles per second — to deliver effective cooling.

Even so, there is already a modest market in thermoelectric wine coolers and small, dorm-size refrigerators that rely on the so-called Peltier effect, which is akin to an electrocaloric effect. According to one recent market report, the global market for thermoelectric modules is on its way from $460 million in 2017 to $850 million in 2025. These units now consume more power than vapor-compression cohorts and they suffer from low cooling power, which means they can’t produce the amount of cooling that traditional VC units can and they can’t make ice. For comparison, the global air-conditioning market alone is projected to grow from $135 billion in 2018 to $292 billion in 2025. By that time, the related refrigeration market is expected to top $40 billion. Refrigerants will add another $30 billion or so to the overall cooling market in 2025.

“It is very likely that in the next few years, better refrigerator prototypes based on crystals will appear that maybe can make their way to the technology market.” —Claudio Cazorla, University of New South Wales

With development and commitment, calorics-based technology should be scalable into these global ballparks, Pecharsky says. “The basic science is there,” he says. “What would make a huge difference is financial support for applied R&D in caloric materials and precommercial development to lower the cost of manufacturing. We know how to do it; we just don’t know how to do it inexpensively.” He suspects one fruitful path will be the development of caloric materials that operate with two applied fields, say magnetic and tension cycling. Fellow calorics scientist Claudio Cazorla of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, cautiously concurs: “It is very likely that in the next few years, better refrigerator prototypes based on crystals will appear that maybe can make their way to the technology market.”

Getting to the New Cool

Technology might end up being the easy part, says K-CEP’s Jessica Brown. To further the cause in this larger context, K-CEP predominately stresses the role that policy, institutional capacity, financial innovation, and behavioral improvements play in order to win on cooling.

With an infusion of more than $60 million from nearly 20 donors and individuals — among them Bill Gates, the ClimateWorks Foundation, the Open Philanthropy Project, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation — K-CEP has taken on an ambitious and diverse portfolio of projects now unfolding in 44 countries (all developing) in partnership with 40 organizations in government, university, finance, international and non-governmental organizations. Each project has its own champions, participants, and administrations. Binding them all is the goal of delivering the cooling capacity to all citizens and services (such as vaccine storage facilities) that require it and to do so without adding to global warming.

K-CEP’s 2-year report, released earlier this year, ticks off the program’s accomplishments as of about April, 2019: two national cooling plans published and 25 more under development; four national cooling efficiency policies passed; seven grants designed to “unlock significant capital for efficient, clean cooling investment through a variety of financing modalities;” the training of over 400 national energy policymakers and ozone officers; fourteen business partnerships; extensive media outreach; and the publication of a series of “knowledge briefs.”

Promising a potentially massive climate-change dividend, for example, was the 2018 start, with the help of K-CEP and Energy Foundation China, of the China Cooling Efficiency Project. The project aims to maximize the mitigation potential in residential and commercial air-conditioning in China through the development of energy-efficiency standards and labels and complementary market transformation programs. China makes most of the world’s air conditioners so it will be central to the success or failure of a global mission for climate-friendly cooling. “If you can win in China, you are well on your way to success,” Brown says, stressing that every country needs to do its part.

In Rwanda’s new National Cooling Strategy, for one, the government has passed minimal energy performance standards (MEPS), which are among the most sweeping ways for countries to increase the efficiency of their cooling appliances. The government is coupling its MEPS actions with strict enforcement, awareness campaigns, and market-based financial mechanisms to ease the acquisition of the higher-efficiency technology.

K-CEP is also supporting work with manufacturers to retool their production lines. For example, UN Development Programme is working with Bangladesh’s top maker of refrigerators, Walton Hi-Tech Ltd., to develop more efficient compressors for its products, which include many of the country’s air conditioners. A similar partnership with Mabe, a manufacturer in Mexico, is leading to factory changes that deliver refrigerators with low-GWP refrigerants and that will use only 75% of the electricity the company’s current units consume.

K-CEP has also devoted $10 million in grant support to unlock public and private investment in advanced and efficient cooling technology. In the context of this project, six proposals received support to develop innovative mechanisms for mobilizing additional financing such as that from private equity banks and development finance institutions. Another cost-management initiative goes by the name Cooling as a Service. The idea here is to deliver cooling on a pay-per-service basis in which the purchaser pays for, in this case, the delivery of cooling services but does not pay for the cooling equipment itself, therefore foregoing the up-front expense often associated with higher-efficiency cooling systems. Another initiative, The Cooling Demo Project, based in the Pacific Island Countries and Territories, focuses on combining next-generation cooling technology with business models that take cooling sustainably into the future.

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White roofs, like this one on a Las Vegas, Nevada, Walmart reflect more solar heat than dark roofs, thereby cutting down the need for air conditioning. (Image source: Walmart/Flickr)

Another of K-CEP’s thrusts centers on working to make cooling a development priority by highlighting how the lack of access to cooling links to development, economic, and health risks. The Million Cool Roofs Challenge, a K-CEP collaboration with The Global Cool Cities Alliance, Sustainable Energy for All, and the Nesta Challenge Prize Centre, is an example that could be far-reaching. It is designed to catalyze the rapid and scaled-up deployment of “cool” roofs that feature surfaces good at reflecting, rather than absorbing, solar energy. This yields a passive cooling effect in buildings, which helps to cool buildings that lack electricity or reduces the demand for air conditioning in structures that are electrified. Easy solutions here could include swapping out asphalt, tar, and other dark roofing materials for white paint or tiles. The competition, structured much like the Global Cooling Prize, will dole out $100,000 to 10 of the most promising applicants. In 2021, judges will determine which suitor deserves the final $1 million award because their cool-roof solution “demonstrates the best sustainable and transferable model for rapid deployment” and stands the best chance of delivering one million square meters of cool roof.

The Cooling for the People Award, a related low-tech cooling project funded by London-based Ashden (an NGO devoted to sustainable energy) focuses on reducing the “urban heat island” effect by increasing the proportion of green spaces in cities. “Green space initiatives create benefits alongside cooling, including acting as carbon sinks, boosting well-being and reducing air pollution,” Ashden’s founder, Sarah Butler-Sloss, stated in the latest K-CEP annual report.

Given this benevolent conspiracy of ongoing efforts, it is puzzling that the cooling piece of the global-warming problem has such a low profile. As K-CEP’s Brown puts it: “Cooling has been a blind spot in the fight against climate change.” Only by opening our eyes to cooling’s prominent place in global warming, she says, can the world break out of the vicious cycle of a need for more cooling leading to more global warming leading to the need for yet more cooling.

In the time it took you to this read this entire article, consumers purchased more than 4,000 new air-conditioners.

Ivan Amato is a writer, editor, podcaster, and science cafe host based in Hyattsville, Maryland. He is the editor of The Moonshot Catalog.

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