Navigant Research Blog

Keeping Cool Without Climate Change

Benjamin Freas — August 3, 2016

HVAC VentAs a heat dome lingers over much of America, many are grateful for air conditioning. Though some credit air conditioning with shaping our history, evidence is emerging that it may also be putting humanity at risk. Globally, stationary air conditioning systems account for nearly 700 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent emissions, roughly the same emissions as all of Germany. The future may herald even more emissions as the growing wealth and growing populations of developing countries prompts the greater adoption of air conditioning.

Changing the current environmental influence of air conditioning is imperative to avert the catastrophic effects of climate change. In a new report published by the U.S. Department of Energy, Navigant outlines the changes in air conditioning technology needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and highlights the R&D pathways to get there.

From Air Conditioning to Energy System

One of the next-generation air conditioning technology research areas highlighted in the report is the integration of air conditioning and other building systems. Fundamentally, air conditioning is the transfer of heat from inside a building to outside a building, which requires the use of energy. Meanwhile, additional energy is spent creating heat for other needs: domestic hot water, cooking, and manufacturing processes. At times, buildings may require both heating and cooling just for thermal comfort. This happens during temperate days where the sunny side of a building may need cooling while the shady side needs heating, or in the scenario of the notorious space heater under the desk.

In a perfect building, waste heat could be reused productively. This is a fundamental shift from individual building processes to a building energy system. Indeed, this is already beginning to happen. Ground-source integrated heat pumps that provide space heating, space cooling, and water heating are already commercially available. Energy recovery ventilators similarly transfer thermal energy between air that is exhausted from a building and fresh air brought into a building.

Deeper building integration is not only necessary, but forthcoming. Axiom Energy, Ice Energy, and CALMAC all have solutions that turn air conditioning and refrigeration systems into energy storage, folding these systems into the Energy Cloud. Moreover, air conditioning controls are beginning the transition into the Internet of Things as more data from different sources can be used to optimize performance. This pivot to an energy system and deeper integration can transform air conditioning from a threat to humanity into a resource that meets the changing energy needs of the world.

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