Changing the game for residential AC

A new air conditioner with the potential to transform the global residential AC market is set to be unveiled at the Global Cooling Prize Grand Award Ceremony on April 29. It marks the end of an innovation competition that began in 2018, but also the start of a larger effort to drive the air conditioning industry to lift its sustainability game.

In it to win it

More than 2,100 teams from 96 countries registered for the Global Cooling Prize (GCP). Of these, 139 teams, comprising individuals, research labs and universities, startup companies, and AC manufacturers, submitted detailed technical applications. In November 2019, eight finalist teams were selected and awarded US$200,000 each to support the development and delivery of two working prototypes to the testing facilities in India.

The COVID-interrupted testing phase eventually finished in March 2021 with four teams having successfully completed both the lab and field tests. According to the GCP organisers, “a number of teams’ prototypes shattered the performance ceiling for AC units, exceeding what was previously believed to be possible. Multiple teams also showed that it is possible to safely shift away from traditional refrigerants, which are potent greenhouse gases, and instead use new refrigerants that have ultra-low global warming potential (GWP) – without negatively impacting performance.”

The prize winner (or winners – more than one prize may be awarded) will be announced at a virtual Grand Award Ceremony on April 29.

A win for the world?

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which launched the prize, is adamant that the GCP journey does not end with the Grand Award Ceremony. If the initiative is to achieve its objectives, it will require more work to take the new technology to market. This could be either via the winning protypes being scaled and sold directly, or by large AC manufacturers building advances from the GCP finalists into their existing units. Teams in the running for the prize include Daikin, Haier, Gree, and Godrej and Boyce .

“The manufacturers have resources and capabilities including established supply chains, testing facilities, and distribution networks to develop and bring to market efficient products in large volumes and at affordable prices,” says RMI.

“If AC manufacturers put their best efforts toward bringing five times lower climate impact ACs to market, we will be able to solve the supply-side challenges.”

Large companies are experiencing increasing pressure to be good global corporate citizens, including those in the often-invisible HVAC&R sector.

The recently announced Race to Zero initiative spotlights cooling as one of the sectors that must achieve near-term breakthroughs to achieve global net-zero goals by 2050. It challenges 20 per cent of global AC manufacturers to bring to market affordable residential AC units that have five times lower climate impact than today’s units by 2025.

A subsequent report, Cooling Suppliers: Who’s Winning the Race to Zero? assessed 54 leading companies and found most lacked climate targets, actions or plans strong enough to join the “Race to Zero”.

These initiatives are putting the onus on large HVAC&R companies to raise the bar.

Role of regulators

RMI points out that governments will play a vital role too, not only by committing to climate targets, but also by rethinking traditional measures such as minimum performance standards.

“Policies should focus on the top-performing products instead of the worst,” says RMI.

“Today, policies set the floor of performance with minimum energy performance standards (MEPS), which are then used as the point of reference to identify the ceiling of performance rating. Interestingly, there are RACs already available in most countries that surpass the highest efficiency levels recognised by rating systems.”

RMI also notes that today’s testing standards incorporate technology bias by measuring the performance of a cooling coil in a vapour compression system.

“The prize has demonstrated that achieving a five times lower climate impact requires combining one or more elements of vapour compression cooling, evaporative cooling, dehumidification strategies, integrated solar PV, free cooling, radiative cooling, low-GWP refrigerants, and so on.”

For details of the Global Cooling Prize Grand Award Ceremony, click here.

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