The global demand for cooling is growing exponentially, which could place serious strains on electrical grids around the world. This increasing demand is coming primarily from developing nations in hotter parts of the world, such as India, where the peak electricity load for air conditioning could reach 45 percent in 2050, up from 10 percent today.

According to a report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) titled “The Future of Cooling,” global energy demand from air conditioners is expected to triple by 2050, requiring new electricity capacity to be equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the U.S., the European Union, and Japan today. The report predicts that the global stock of air conditioners in buildings will grow to 5.6 billion by 2050 — up from 1.6 billion today — which amounts to 10 new air conditioners sold every second for the next 30 years.

To address the increasing cooling demand and its associated strain on electrical grids, the IEA supports implementing new efficiency standards, noting that efficiency improvements could cut the energy growth from air conditioning demand in half.

“Setting higher efficiency standards for cooling is one of the easiest steps governments can take to reduce the need for new power plants and allow them at the same time to cut emissions and reduce costs,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the IEA.

This push toward higher efficiencies may be helped along by the Global Cooling Prize, an international competition whose goal is to identify innovative cooling technologies that will have at least five times less climate impact than standard room air conditioning units. Over $3 million in prizes will be awarded during the course of the two-year competition, which is being administered by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

“A technology developed through the Global Cooling Prize has the opportunity to capture a $20 billion market and transform the global market for the better,” said Iain Campbell, senior fellow, Rocky Mountain Institute.

Any breakthroughs in air conditioning technology can hopefully be used to improve the energy efficiency of commercial refrigeration equipment as well. In the U.S., commercial refrigeration accounts for 40 to 60 percent of the electricity consumption in supermarkets, so new technology that could significantly decrease energy bills would likely be welcomed by end users.

Provided it’s affordable, new energy-efficient technology could also help developing nations, where inhabitants often lack access to cold chain technology, or else the energy source is too expensive or unreliable. In either case, the lack of refrigeration results in a tremendous amount of food waste and/or spoilage, as well as the inability to keep life-saving vaccines cool.

In India, for example, it is estimated that 40 percent of all perishable food is lost due to an inadequate cold chain, said John Galyen, president of Danfoss North America, at a recent workshop hosted by The World Bank in Washington, D.C.

“If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions — and while 1 billion people go to bed hungry, one-third of all food is lost due to inefficient or nonexistent cold chains,” he said. “Imagine the impact sustainable, reliable, efficient cooling could have on health and environment. Therefore, it is imperative that we continue to work together to optimize cold chain infrastructure around the world.”

The good news is that the HVACR industry has a proven track record of meeting energy-efficiency challenges, especially in developed countries,” said Galyen.

Of course, the challenges in developing countries are different, because comfort cooling and cold chains are not as well-established — and these are the places where population growth, and therefore cooling demand, is concentrated. It will be interesting to see what new technologies result from this global push for more energy-efficient cooling equipment. Hopefully there will be significant advances that will not only reduce the strain on electrical grids, but will be affordable and readily available in developing countries, where the lives of so many could be better if only they had access to reliable air conditioning and refrigeration.

Publication date: 2/25/2019

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