Between 1992 and 2016, more than 22,000 people in India died as a result of heat exposure. In 2015 alone, the death toll reached 2,300.
Authoritative projections indicate that under a high-emissions scenario, 75 percent of the country’s population will face dangerous levels of heat and humidity by 2100. Cities that now house millions would become uninhabitable.
One reason that India’s heat waves are particularly deadly is the scarcity of air conditioning. The nation has one of the lowest penetrations of AC technology in the world – today, fewer than 10 percent of all its households have it.
This situation is changing. The country’s expanding middle class, increasing urbanization, and rising temperatures are leading to more sales of room air conditioners for residential use. Within the next few decades, India is expected to become a world leader as measured by the number of AC units in operation.
But while this important transition will save lives in the short term, it could make the country – and the planet – even hotter.
The cold crunch
The rise of air conditioning in India plays a major role in what the International Energy Agency, in its “Future of Cooling” report, calls the “cold crunch” – a phenomenon it describes as one of the most critical energy issues of our time. This “crunch” refers to a projected dramatic rise in the use of AC – most of it residential – in emerging economies. India is expected to lead the pack in terms of numbers of room units coming online, but Indonesia, Brazil, and other nations will also experience significant growth.
If current trends continue, the amount of energy required to power the world’s air conditioners will triple by 2050, making it roughly equal to China’s current electricity demand.”It’s Click To Tweet
The impact? “If this massive adoption happens under a business-as-usual scenario – which means if we just take the ACs that we have today and deploy them in the market moving forward with incremental improvements in efficiency – you could look at almost half a degree [Celsius] increase through just room air conditioners by 2100,” said Radhika Lalit, a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute New York City office.
This scenario would also wreak havoc on electricity grids in the developing world, where rising AC use is already stressing power systems and driving up energy costs. In India, new air conditioning units could result in a 1,500 percent increase in energy demand by 2050, according to the IEA report.
Lalit, who is originally from Delhi, India, is leading an effort that aims to avoid these outcomes. Called the Global Cooling Prize, it posits that the only way to bring the benefits of mechanical cooling to hot countries while preventing the downsides is to radically improve AC technology.
Direct and indirect emissions
Since Willis Carrier designed the first mechanical air conditioner in 1902, AC systems have relied overwhelmingly on a technology called vapor compression. This technology impacts the climate both directly (through GHGs emitted by refrigerants) and indirectly (through the use of electricity).
The cooling industry has taken significant steps over time to reduce its environmental impact. The most obvious example has come about in the wake of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, an international agreement that mandated the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, which are ozone-depleting refrigerants.
However, the refrigerants that replaced CFCs, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are extremely potent greenhouse gases. In 2016, the international community committed to drastically reduce the use of HFCs over the next three decades. The AC industry is again having to transition to different refrigerants. (In Europe and parts of Asia, regulations have already reduced the use of HFCs.)
But according to the Global Cooling Prize team, indirect emissions are a still-bigger problem: Refrigerants are responsible for only a fifth of AC-related emissions in developing countries.
Lalit and her colleagues say the best way to slash emissions is to dramatically reduce the amount of energy AC units consume. “The best-in-class room air conditioners that are available in the market today are no more than 14 percent of the theoretical maximum efficiency,” she said. Cheaper models, which are preferred by consumers because of what Lalit calls “first-cost myopia,” are even less efficient.
Despite real gains in efficiency over the past few decades, the industry isn’t moving fast enough to address indirect emissions, she insists.
To jumpstart innovation, the Global Cooling Prize is offering money for the development of an affordable room AC unit that has five times less climate impact than current models.
More than 1,600 engineering teams from around the world have registered for the prize. After the August 31 deadline for technical proposals, industry experts are to select 10 finalists to receive $200,000 to develop a prototype room cooling unit. The prototypes will be lab- and field-tested and the top performer will win $1 million.
According to Eli Goldstein, the cofounder of a startup whose technology cools buildings by sending heat into outer space, the prize is already having a positive impact on the AC industry. “It’s calling attention to the current system and the current way things are made, and it’s getting people excited,” he said. The initiative also is encouraging healthy competition and cooperation between different industry players, according to Goldstein.
The idea for the competition grew out of investigations into high-impact climate mitigation opportunities that the Rocky Mountain Institute undertook in 2017. After developing the contest framework, Lalit and her colleagues assembled a high-profile support network including the Indian government and Mission Innovation, a global clean energy initiative.
Prize entries fall into one of three categories: improved vapor compression, niche cooling, and futuristic technologies.
The first category involves designs that significantly advance vapor compression technology. The second includes non-vapor compression systems shown to perform well in certain environmental conditions, but not others, limiting the ability to scale them across all geographies where AC is needed. For example, “solar thermal requires solar, and maybe a battery. And evaporative cooling is best when it’s not humid,” Lalit said. “There are ways in which you can obviously correct for that, but that would imply increases in cost or in the size of the system.” The prize is designed to encourage clever engineering that could address these limitations.
The third category consists of innovative non-vapor compression technologies that are in earlier stages of development and commercialization – for instance, systems that use sound waves or electrical junctions to provide cooling.
Priming the market
In addition to supporting the development of short-listed technologies, the prize organizers are working to ensure that the winner will be able to compete in the marketplace, starting with India and moving to other emerging economies.
To this end, the Indian government is exploring options to set an example and create demand for the new products, using bulk procurement for its own buildings. Lalit and her colleagues are also working to line up advance commitments from private-sector organizations.
The organizers are also considering ways to help consumers make informed purchases, rather than simply picking the cheapest model off the shelf.
They acknowledge that this component will require creative thinking to overcome one fundamental obstacle: “Air conditioners are boring,” as Lalit put it.
Sarah Wesseler is a Brooklyn-based writer focusing on cities, culture, and climate change.