Efficiency is key to avoiding “cold crunch”

Efficiency is key to avoiding “cold crunch”

New air conditioning efficiency standards are needed if the world is to avoid an energy “cold crunch” from the growth in cooling demand in coming decades.

A new International Energy Agency (IEA) report – The Future of Cooling – maintains that the growing use of air conditioners in homes and offices around the world will be one of the top drivers of global electricity demand over the next three decades.

Using air conditioners and electric fans to stay cool already accounts for about a fifth of the total electricity used in buildings around the world – or 10% of all global electricity consumption today, the report claims.

Global sales of air conditioners have been growing steadily and significantly. Since 1990, annual sales of air conditioners are said to have more than tripled to 135 million units. There are now about 1.6 billion in use, with over half in just two countries China and the USA.

Of the 2.8 billion people living in the hottest parts of the world, only 8% currently possess air conditioning, compared to 90% ownership in the USA and Japan. As incomes and living standards improve in many developing countries the global stock of air conditioners in buildings will grow to 5.6 billion by 2050, or 10 new air conditioners sold every second for the next 30 years.

This growth in air conditioning is expected to see energy demand triple by 2050. This would require new electricity capacity the equivalent to the current combined electricity capacity of the USA, the EU and Japan.

The efficiency of new air conditioners can vary widely around the world. Air conditioners sold in Japan and the European Union, for instance, are typically 25% more efficient than those sold in the United States and China. The EIA report maintains that mandatory energy performance standards could cut the energy growth from AC demand in half.

“Growing electricity demand for air conditioning is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate,” commented IEA executive director Dr Fatih Birol. “With rising incomes, air conditioner ownership will skyrocket, especially in the emerging world. While this will bring extra comfort and improve daily lives, it is essential that efficiency performance for ACs be prioritised. Standards for the bulk of these new ACs are much lower than where they should be.”

The report identifies key policy actions. The IEA finds that through stringent minimum energy performance standards and other measures such as labelling, the average energy efficiency of the stock of ACs worldwide could more than double between now and 2050. This would greatly reduce the need to build new electricity infrastructure to meet rising demand.

Making cooling more efficient would also yield multiple benefits, making it more affordable, more secure, and more sustainable, and saving as much as $2.9 trillion in investment, fuel and operating costs.

The EIA report identifies several key areas where efficiency of existing AC technologies could be improved: aerodynamic fan blades, more efficient compressors, improved inverter technology and the use of variable speed drives on fan motors – all of which are being adopted on the most recent air conditioners.

In the longer term, the EIA says that research, development and demonstration is expected to focus on reducing the cost of highly efficient advanced vapour-compression systems and emerging non vapour-compression systems that do not use refrigerants.

The report also looks at the way air-conditioning systems are designed, installed and operated. These include using thermal zoning within buildings, enhanced controls and better sizing, installation and maintenance.