Is Energy Efficient Refrigeration Enough to Meet Climate Change Deadline?

The urgent need to address climate change has gained renewed focus since late last year when the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned we have as few as 12 years to reduce global emissions by 45 percent. Should we not meet that goal – and average global temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius – the impacts and costs to environments, health and economies could very well be cataclysmic.

Scientists are done kidding. The University of Washington is comparing our current climate scenario to a mass extinction 252 million years ago that wiped out 96 percent of ocean life. The National Academy of Sciences warns that current rates of warming are most similar to the effects of a “meteorite impact” that will transform our climate to conditions that predate humanity.

“The impacts and costs of climate change are already being felt in the United States, and changes in the likelihood or severity of some recent extreme weather events can now be attributed with increasingly higher confidence to human-caused warming,” federal scientists wrote in the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 1,600-word report released in November 2018.

It is now paramount to reduce greenhouse emissions, and refrigerants are front and center in the struggle. Of greater concern than carbon dioxide are super pollutants – gases like methane, chlorofluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons that only hang around the atmosphere for a few days yet do a far greater share of damage to the biosphere. In fact, super pollutants collectively might be contributing as much as 50 percent to current warming trends. Experts warn that without a more aggressive approach to the reduction of these super pollutants, global temperatures could rise even faster than forecast.

“Mitigation of super pollutants is the only way to keep it below 2 degrees [Celsius] by 2050,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s distinguished professor of atmospheric and climate sciences, at an event in September.

Does Climate Control Advance Climate Change?

As increased attention is paid to super pollutants, scientists are focusing efforts on one rather mundane culprit: the air conditioner.

According to researchers with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the International Energy Agency and the Rocky Mountain Institute, room air conditioners – both window and split units like the ones used in most homes – will account for more than 130 gigatons of carbon emissions between now and 2050.

How much is that? AC emissions alone will use as much as 40 percent of the world’s “carbon budget” set during 2015’s Paris Climate Conference.

Humans have been seeking ways to control their immediate climate conditions for millennia, whether it was the ancient Egyptians hanging wet reeds in their open windows or 2nd century Chinese devising a mechanical method of evaporative cooling. New York’s Willis Carrier invented the first modern electrical air conditioner in 1902 – now considered one of the most useful inventions of the 20th century.

But now our need for climate control is hastening climate change, and rising temperatures are only increasing the demand for artificial cooling. In a vicious cycle, further increased use of refrigerants used in air conditioning systems are now the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s estimated that by 2100, air conditioning alone will contribute to one-half degree Celsius in global warming.

The urgency to drastically reduce the use of refrigerants and other super pollutants has led to greater opportunities for business and industry to make a positive impact.

“Retailers and other technology end-users have an opportunity to develop refrigeration strategies that simultaneously advance business and environmental goals,” shecco CEO Marc Chasserot said in a press release. “The transition towards long-term future-proof natural refrigerant-based technologies is often not without challenges. Nevertheless, learning from the experience of others can be an effective way to overcome the barriers as well as avoid unnecessary intermediary steps.”

Is Energy Efficient HVAC the Solution?

Lawmakers continue to argue over the best ways to address climate change, but they predominantly agree on energy efficiency. Governments at all levels are increasingly instituting policies that encourage residents to purchase energy-efficient upgrades and improvements to their homes, appliances and vehicles.

In fact, energy-efficient improvements saved 50 percent more electricity in 2017 than they did in 2013. Efficiency makes an impact, too. The U.S. may be slow to adopt renewable infrastructure, but its efficiency improvements conserved as much power in 2017 as the entire nation of Denmark was able to produce.

While HVAC companies stay plenty busy upgrading consumers to HVAC systems with the ENERGY STAR label, other technology is moving to the forefront of the energy efficiency market. Artificial intelligence is conserving energy where human intelligence has failed.

Programmable thermostats have been in fashion for several years now, and the devices continue to increase in sophistication. But today’s smart home environment promises to efficiently control climate in ways a person with a remote cannot.

Thanks to Internet-connected sensors, cloud computing and predictive analytics like that used by Motili, HVAC management systems can now continually adjust temperatures and humidity levels across different areas of a home based on real-time and historical data. By connecting HVAC to the Internet of Things, the optimization can slash energy usage by 20 percent.

Meanwhile, tech companies like Phononic are creating innovative cooling technology that allows facilities with huge cooling needs – hospitals, laboratories, data centers, etc. – to optimize their energy usage.

According to Project Drawdown, more efficient refrigeration techniques could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 90 gigatons over the next 30 years. Traditional refrigerators rely on super pollutants such as CFCs and HVCs to absorb and release heat. But Phononic’s refrigeration systems are thermodynamic – special semiconductors transfer heat away from the cooling area. Not only do the systems operate without the use of super pollutants, but without a need for a compressor they also operate without using electricity.

Can HVAC Reduce Fossil Fuels?

Still, with such dire warnings from scientists, will adopting energy efficient cooling techniques be enough to meet the climate change deadline? Surely there is a way to turn the problem into the solution. What if HVAC could not only reduce the amount of energy it uses, but also reduce the amount of harmful pollutants already in the air?

According to a recent report from Nature Communications, HVAC systems move enough air to negatively impact overall emissions. An HVAC unit replaces the entire air volume of an office building between five and 10 times each hour. Scientists thought since machines that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere also move large volumes of air, why not kill two birds with one stone?

A team of engineers from Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have proposed an HVAC system that is not only powered by renewable energy but also able to extract carbon dioxide and water from the air. The machine would convert the compounds into hydrogen, which it would then transform into hydrocarbon fuels.

The report’s authors described the solution as “personalized, localized and distributed, synthetic oil wells,” or “crowd oil.”

The innovation would allow people “to take control and collectively manage global warming and climate change, rather than depending on the fossil power industrial behemoths,” the researchers explained.

The authors estimate that applying this sustainable HVAC system to a single one of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers would extract and convert enough carbon dioxide to yield at least 660,000 gallons of fuel in one year. Office space in an entire city could yield more than 122 million gallons annually. One can only imagine the impact property owners can make en masse or even individually lowering their energy bills.

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