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ACs are bulky, loud, and terrible for the environment. Is there a better version in our future?

As the world heats up, more people are buying air conditioners, and the sector is ripe for innovation.

ACs are bulky, loud, and terrible for the environment. Is there a better version in our future?
[Image: Daniel Salo (Illustration), WesAbrams/iStock (source photo)]
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The earth is getting hotter every year, and people around the world are experiencing temperatures they’d never before dreamed of. This summer, the Pacific Northwest suffered through a heat wave where temperatures climbed as high as 121 degrees, causing hundreds to die of heat-related illnesses. In Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia, where many homes don’t have air-conditioning, families rushed to buy AC units—only to find they were all sold out.

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This run on ACs is part of a global pattern, experts say: Climbing temperatures, coupled with growing populations and rising incomes, will cause the demand for cooling to spike. The International Energy Agency estimates that over the next three decades, the number of AC window units installed worldwide will triple to nearly 6 billion from the current 2 billion. This creates a paradox: As more people buy ACs to cope with the climbing temperatures, they emit more greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming, making future heat waves even more likely.

The increasing demand for air conditioners presents an enormous financial opportunity. As a result, startups are entering the space, creating new competition in a formerly sleepy industry. This is spurring a wave of innovation on both the technological and aesthetic fronts, as companies look to develop more sustainable units that also look sleek and modern.

While all the major companies—from Haier to LG—are incrementally improving the efficiency of their machines, some of the most exciting innovation is coming from startups like Gradient and Transaera, which are trying to redesign air conditioners to significantly cut down on their greenhouse gasses. For now, these eco-friendly air conditioners tend to be pricier, so to compete with the cheaper mass market brands, startups are reimagining their very look and offering a better customer experience. But to avert the most devastating impacts of climate change, brands will need to win over more than just affluent, design-conscious consumers and convince billions of people around the world to switch to more efficient, less polluting units.

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[Photo: Gradient]

How to design a better air conditioner

Willis Carrier invented the first room air conditioner in 1926; since then, the basic design hasn’t changed significantly. The machines suck warm air from a room, a fluid called a refrigerant cools the air, which is then blown back into the room. “Air-conditioning is a very power-hungry operation,” says Sorin Grama, cofounder and CEO of Transaera, which is developing a low-cost, energy-efficient AC. “The second law of thermodynamics is that heat flows from a hot body to a cold body. To go against the laws of nature consumes a lot of energy, which puts a lot of strain on the power grid.”

All of this energy consumption is wreaking havoc on the climate. Cooling systems currently account for 10% of global electricity usage, and over the next three decades, air-conditioning will generate more than 132 gigatons of carbon emissions.

When you break down the climate impact of the AC, 80% of their greenhouse gas emissions comes from the energy they consume, and 20% comes from refrigerants, according to Iain Campbell, a senior fellow at RMI, which focuses on reducing the world’s energy consumption. These refrigerants contain greenhouse gases, such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are thousands of times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide.

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Five years ago, the United States and other countries promised to slash the use of HFCs—which are used in all kinds of cooling products, including refrigerators—by more than 80% over the following three decades. As a result, scientists are working to develop refrigerants that contain less greenhouse gases: Today, brands can use refrigerants like R32, which use significantly less HFCs, or refrigerants that use another chemical called hydrofluoroolefins, which have less impact on global warming.

But just because more sustainable refrigerants exist doesn’t mean the industry will adopt them. That’s where the startups come in. In addition to making the air conditioners themselves more sustainable, they’re focused on creating more nimble supply chains, “so we can swap in better and better refrigerants as they come to market,” says Muhammad Saigol, cofounder of July, which launched in 2020.

[Photo: July]
In the near future, it will be possible to use refrigerants that have near-zero global warming potential, says Vince Romanin, founder of Gradient, which is developing a heat pump that reduces the carbon footprint of heating and cooling by 75%. Crucially, not only does this pump make the AC more sustainable, but it allows the unit to sit below the window. This means it doesn’t block light from entering, and the top also serves as a shelf.

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There’s a class of refrigerant found in nature—including ammonia, propane, and carbon dioxide—that could be used in air-conditioning units, but these chemicals are toxic, flammable, or require a lot of pressure to work, respectively. So using them would require reengineering the machine. “There is a lot of debate in our industry around what refrigerants to go to next,” Romanin says. “Our approach is to build in a lot of the safety features that are necessary to use natural refrigerants, so that as standards update, our system is one step ahead of the game and ready to adopt them as soon as possible.”

But there’s still the question of energy consumption. In 2018, RMI partnered with the government of India and Mission Innovation, an organization devoted to affordable clean energy, to launch the Global Cooling Prize, which invited companies to develop a super-efficient cooling system that had five times lower climate impact than today’s machines. This year, the first winners were selected: Daikin and Gree Electric Appliances. “These winners showed us that we can create very low-impact air conditioners,” says Campbell, who helped oversee the prize in his role at RMI. “It was done with smarter controls, better surface areas, and importantly, the ability to separately manage humidity as well as temperature.” Typical air conditioners today don’t separately dehumidify the space. But a key finding from the prize is that if a machine has separate controls for sucking moisture out of the air and reducing the temperature, it will use far less energy and create a more comfortable indoor environment. Now, these companies have pledged to bring the air conditioners to market in the next two years.

But will anybody buy them?

While the technology to create a more sustainable air conditioner exists, Campbell isn’t particularly optimistic that it will revolutionize the industry, since these machines will cost about two and a half times the cheapest products on the market. Even today, it’s possible to buy air conditioners that are slightly more efficient than the status quo, but they’re generally a few hundred dollars more expensive than machines of the same size. Over time, these energy-efficient ACs will cut down on monthly electric bills, but Campbell says most people decide what unit to buy based on how much it costs, rather than the lifetime savings. “The mass market tends to buy the cheapest products, which tend to be the least efficient,” he says. “This is not a technology problem, this is a market failure problem.”

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In many of the world’s hottest countries, including India, Indonesia, and South Africa, fewer than 10% of households had AC units in 2018 (compared to 90% of households in the United States and Japan). As the middle class grows in these countries, Campbell says one of the first things they’ll purchase is an air conditioner, because it vastly improves the quality of their lives. Right now, it costs a little more than $500 to install an AC in India that can cool a home. That’s a major expense, given that the average annual household income in India is just over $3,000. Campbell notes that many of these households simply won’t have the capital to afford the costlier, more efficient machines, even if there are energy savings.

[Photo: Windmill]
In the United States, startups are trying to convince consumers to invest in their ACs by creating more minimalist, aesthetically pleasing units. Windmill and July—which cost around $400 for a window unit, or around double the cost of the cheapest machine—spent a lot of time designing ACs that are easy to install and have a sleek, attractive exterior that blends into a modern home. Gradient’s below-the-window design is the first of its kind but it hasn’t yet launched. The company also hasn’t revealed how much it will cost, but says it won’t be priced to compete with the cheapest units on the market.

Romanin, Gradient’s founder, believes that the widespread adoption of more sustainable ACs is likely to follow the pattern of electric vehicles. He points to Tesla, which wooed consumers not with a message of sustainability, but rather with a car that was more luxurious and fun to drive. The first Teslas were very expensive, but as the company has begun to achieve scale, it has rolled out cheaper models. Perhaps more importantly, it has spurred the rest of the industry to develop their own electric vehicles. Last week, President Biden signed an executive order calling for the government to ensure that half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. are electric by 2030.

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The path ahead

Over the next three decades, 4 billion air conditioners will be sold, amounting to one every second. If the industry doesn’t bring more sustainable machines to the market quickly—and if consumers aren’t enticed to buy them—air conditioners will keep contributing to rising temperatures around the globe. While Campbell believes that startups have an important role to play, he says governments also need to step in and regulate the industry.

Campbell believes the best hope for greening the air-conditioning sector is for countries to set minimum requirements for machines. This would mean banning refrigerants that have high global warming potential, transitioning to natural refrigerants, and cutting down energy usage significantly. “You only need a few regions to act—China, India, the U.S., and the EU—to say that ACs need to be made to a new standard by 2025 or 2030,” he says. “If you do this, you’ve captured 90% of the market and 90% of manufacturing. Overnight, you’d have an economy of scale churning out products to this new standard, rather than to the worst performing units sold in those markets.”

It’s unclear whether there’s enough political will right now to regulate the air-conditioning sector. There haven’t been any HVAC-specific policies tied to the Green New Deal or any other recent climate proposals. And if the auto industry serves as a model, it could take a long time to drum up the support from government and industry to clean up the sector. It took more than two decades from the time electric vehicles first hit the market to get to where we are right now. But what’s clear is that climate change is already here. If the world doesn’t act quickly, even greater devastation is headed our way.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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