Calm and comfortable is the optimum setting for mankind, and for many that means air-conditioning. That’s all very well, when the electricity that powers AC units is of the green variety. Alas, too often it is not. Many of us aren’t too bothered about that, however, and over the decades air-conditioning has become customary in the rich world.

About 75% of properties in Australia are air-conditioned; in Japan and the United States, more than 90%. Such high levels of penetration in temperate, variable climates is what Rocky Mountain Institute senior fellow Iain Campbell calls “comfort cooling”, where air-con, let’s face it, is a bit of a luxury.

“Yes, there are days [in those countries] when it’s really hot and days when it’s really humid,” he says, “but generally it’s not the tropics.”

It’s the next, far bigger wave of adoption we need to worry about, in regions where populations are massive, the climate is hot – searing at times – and consumers aspire to developed-world levels of comfort. There are 2.8 billion people who live in such regions, Campbell says, and as they climb the income ladder to the point where luxuries such as televisions and mobile phones become affordable, you can bet they will pull the trigger on installing an air-con unit. “We haven’t seen anything yet, and it’s coming fast.”

The bulge in demand for cheap, inefficient air-con units will push up demand for electricity in countries with dirty generation, and that’s not good. To solve the problem a partnership of sponsors, businesses and government bodies has backed the Global Cooling Prize, a $US3 million lure to industry to come up with affordable room air-conditioning technology that can be easily installed to suit a 90-square-metre residence but has five-times less climate impact, and uses 4.5-times less energy, than a popular benchmark unit.

Power down

So far, Campbell is optimistic. “We are uncovering a lot of things that are coming to the prize from a different direction, and we’re hoping to be able to take a pretty good cross-section of those technologies through to prototype,” says Campbell, who has 30 years’ experience in the cooling industry on the product engineering and manufacturing side.

It’s possible to find a room AC unit that achieves 3.5-times lower climate impact than the benchmark chosen for the prize but the game now is to push energy use even lower. “We’re going to see multiple pathways to getting to the five-times criteria – and beyond,” he says. “We want to see diverse technology.”

Next, it becomes a case of explaining the value of energy savings to consumers, so they’ll spend more on efficient units today knowing that they will spend less on electricity tomorrow. This is where governments can step in with efficiency standards, he says, which become an incentive to manufacturers as they compete for energy-conscious consumers. “Time after time the pricing of those more efficient units comes down, and that’s where mass market production is now occurring,” says Campbell, who was in Australia in March to present to the Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air-conditioning and Heating refrigeration conference.

The winner of the Global Cooling Prize will take $US1 million and 10 finalists will be awarded $US200,000 each. Entries close mid-August.

Air-con crazy

Singapore is touted as an air-con success story, where the cooling technology drove productivity by effectively removing the burden of stifling afternoon heat. In regions where the seasons are more pronounced, however, it’s common for interiors to be unreasonably cold in summer. If the rest of the world goes air-con crazy and catches the west’s over-cooling bug, there will be trouble.

To cool an interior effectively it pays to understand how air-con works, but many owners operate units inefficiently simply because they don’t know better. In a humid climate it’s common to over-cool in order to cause condensation and remove moisture from the air; more energy is then required to reheat the air. Cooling also elicits a positive emotional response, where shoppers who are greeted by a refrigerated current are grateful for a retailer’s benevolence and “air of luxury”. Cash registers ring in favourable response, and store-owners shrug off high power bills. That doesn’t help anyone in the long run.

Government owners of power infrastructure are aware that cooling drives peak consumption, and replacement of energy-hungry air-con units with efficient ones would offset expensive grid upgrades. “It’s an incredibly expensive load for the grid to serve,” Campbell says. “If you let people buy inefficient equipment you have to put in energy infrastructure that you can’t recover from consumers because you have to subsidise the cost of retail electricity – it all becomes very dysfunctional and we hope we are opening people’s eyes to some of those problems.”

The room AC segment is the biggest and “most dysfunctional” sector in air-conditioning, Campbell says. About 70% of the world’s production is out of China, and two companies account for half of that. “You’ve got a mass industry that isn’t innovating and controls most of the channels to market.” There’s an opportunity to clean things up.

Campbell is well received by policy-makers in Indian government, he says, because they understand the impact to their electricity system of becoming the world’s largest air-conditioning market at some point in the future. But from a consumer perspective, “people just want access to cooling – it’s a step into the middle class, and there is huge pent-up demand.”

You can neutralise the impact of that ramp-up in adoption if you have a technology that has five-times lower climate impact, he says. “Our criteria was set by the need to neutralise the environmental impact of cooling, so you can satiate the demand out to 2050 but have lower environment impact than today’s cooling systems.”