Heatwaves increase AC use. Here’s how tech is making cooling more sustainable:

Air conditioning is the fastest-growing use of energy, with 30 percent coming from commercial buildings

August 13, 2019

Michael Brown / Stringer/ Getty Images News

June was the hottest month in recorded history. Temperatures in Europe surpassed records. In July, heatwaves continued across the globe, with local governments in the U.S. scrambled to keep people cool and hydrated.

During these heatwaves, air-conditioned malls and offices provided a necessary reprieve. This need to crank the AC is unlikely to shrink in the years to come, with experts concluding that climate change will continue driving temperatures higher.

“The past five years (2014-2018) have been the hottest on record, making air conditioning not just about comfort, but about health, safety, and productivity,” says Dana Schneider, JLL’s Managing Director of Energy and Sustainability Projects. 

 But keeping cool in the heat presents a conundrum. Air conditioning is the fastest-growing use of energy in buildings, according to the International Energy Agency. Demand is expected to triple by 2050, with 30 percent coming from commercial buildings. 

Increasingly common heatwaves “are another example of the impacts of climate change creating a vicious cycle where hotter temperatures mean more demand for cooling, which requires energy from fossil fuels, which is a contributor to climate change,” Schneider says.

Staying cool while the world gets hotter

Greenhouse gas emissions have aided the increase global temperatures by 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution, and the IPCC projects that temperatures could increase by another half degree by 2040. This would result in dramatic increases in cooling demand for many cities, with London’s climate expected to resemble Barcelona, and Seattle as warm as San Francisco. 

Innovations in air conditioning technology could be part of breaking this cycle. While the scale of the problem is daunting, there has been progress across several areas, such as more efficient system components, smart building controls, and alternative refrigerants.

California-based startup Software Motor Company, for example, utilizes real-time data and software intelligence to ensure that its motors for heating, ventilation and air conditioning – known as HVAC – run at optimal efficiency at all times and speeds. This has resulted in average HVAC energy savings of 55 percent across dozens of projects, including restaurant chains like Five Guys, retailers like Sprouts, and commercial office buildings.

Smart controls that optimize cooling based on real-time building and weather data is another area for innovation, with the potential to reduce total building energy consumption by nearly a third, according to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Industry giants like Carrier and Trane have invested heavily in these applications. Energy management platform startups like Enlightened and SmartWatt have gone on to be acquired by Siemens and Centrica, respectively. 

“You have these aggressive carbon neutral goals in states like California, New York, or Minnesota that will require buildings to radically slash energy use in the next 10 or 20 years,” says Eric Meyerson of Software Motor Company. “So the larger operators are trying to figure out how to get ahead of that.”

Beyond energy

The sustainability challenges of increased use of air conditioning extend beyond energy. The chemical refrigerants that are a core component of most air conditioners sold today are hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide.

“HFCs were adopted in recent decades to replace ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs),” says Sindy Sonshine, Director, Supply Chain & Procurement Management at JLL. “However, the ideal is alternatives that are benign to both the ozone layer and the global climate.”

There has been progress on developing next-generation refrigerants and the equipment calibrated to use them efficiently and safely. The HVAC industry has pledged to invest $5 billion to achieve an 80 percent reduction in HFC use by 2050. Honeywell, for example, unveiled a new low-climate impact refrigerant that is nonflammable —unlike other alternatives under development— and is expected to require only minimal changes to equipment and no additional training for technicians.

This is an area where governments are moving toward tighter regulations. In the U.S., a refrigerant called R22 is being phased out because of its harmful effects on the ozone layer. Its cost is expected to triple after a ban on production and imports next year.

Looking at everything available for HVAC upgrades, “HVAC energy efficiency is a great way to balance making a business case and doing something good for the planet,” says Schneider. “Not many building owners will do something solely because it’s environmentally responsible, but energy efficiency saves money, delivers a return on investment, and does something good for the environment. It’s a win-win.”