By Sam Wasson
Updated Jan 9, 2023
Heating and cooling systems account for about 20% of the total electricity used in buildings worldwide. These systems are also responsible for 10% of all global electricity consumption. But these numbers are set to climb drastically in the coming years. According to the International Energy Association (IEA), the world is set to experience an air conditioning crisis. By its numbers, the total demand for air conditioning systems is set to triple by 2050.
As the effects of global warming produce heat waves that wreak havoc across the globe, more and more countries will need access to heating and cooling systems. Unfortunately, most modern HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems use outdated, inefficient technology that strains finances and local electrical grids. The good news is that many companies are developing new tech to help weather the upcoming superheated storm. This article explores some of these new heating and cooling systems and looks into those that may be hitting the market throughout 2023.
The importance of better air conditioning technology comes from two major factors: efficiency and environmental impact. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), HVAC systems are the second largest consumers of residential electricity, only outpaced by appliances and electronics. Modern cooling systems pump hot air through coils filled with liquid refrigerant; as the air heats the refrigerant inside the coils, the air becomes cold, and the refrigerant converts into a gas. The cold air is pumped back into the home, and the now gaseous refrigerant is pumped outside into a compressor unit, pressurized back into a liquid, then sent back into the coils. As you can imagine, pumping, heating, and cooling take up an extraordinary amount of energy and, therefore, electricity.
The efficiency of an HVAC system is determined by its Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, or SEER. An AC’s SEER rating represents its efficiency in turning raw electricity into cold air; the higher the number, the more efficient the system. Today, the average SEER rating of air conditioners ranges from 13 to 26, significantly higher than older systems from the 1970s – back then, systems had ratings as low as six. But even with modern high-efficiency systems, air conditioning systems are still inefficient at converting electricity into cold air.
The second major reason driving heating and cooling innovation is an AC unit’s serious environmental impact. The problem is twofold: One, since AC units are not very efficient at what they do, they consume inordinate amounts of energy to cool homes. This waste of energy represents more greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels to produce said electricity. Second, the refrigerants used in most AC units are themselves greenhouse gases.
Back in the day, refrigerators used chemicals like sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and methyl chloride as refrigerants. These chemicals were highly toxic and phased out after a series of fatal accidents caused by leaks. In 1928, a scientist working for General Motors named Thomas Midgley, Jr. synthesized chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. CFCs were highly effective as refrigerants and aerosol propellants. These chemicals saw widespread use in everything from AC systems to bug spray, hairspray, and much more, with over one million metric tons being produced at peak usage.
In 1974, professors from the University of California discovered that CFCs were creating a hole in the Earth’s ozone layer. CFCs were mostly phased out by 1987 with the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty designed to curb ozone depletion. Since then, different chemicals called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) have replaced CFCs. While HFCs are much safer and, ultimately, less harmful than CFCs, they’re dangerous greenhouse gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Ultimately, as the effects of climate change continue, the need for more AC systems across the globe will further rise. But implementing these much-needed cooling systems will only produce more greenhouse gases, furthering the problem. According to the IEA, by 2050, over 4.5 billion units will be installed, eventually accounting for 13% of global energy consumption. As such, new technology has become necessary to break this cycle.
Thankfully, while there are still major hurdles to overcome, the future of HVAC technology looks bright. Numerous companies and think tanks are working on technology to solve society’s heating and cooling problem. While many of these projects are still far off, we’ve compiled some of the most promising hopefuls that could see implementation relatively soon.
A heat pump is a heating and cooling system that already exists and is a more efficient alternative to conventional air conditioners. A heat pump pulls heat from the inside of your home and expels it to another location. This system can also heat a home by drawing in hot air from outside sources (even in the winter) and directing it indoors. A traditional AC system must be paired with a furnace to heat a home, which burns fossil fuels (typically natural gas). A heat pump can fulfill both roles, using less energy and producing fewer greenhouse gases. Due to its higher efficiency and lower electricity usage, you can save anywhere from 30% to 60% on energy bills by switching to a heat pump.
There are three primary types of heat pumps you can buy:
Evaporative cooling is, by all accounts, an old technology. It uses the evaporation process by having hot air contact with water, which evaporates into colder air. This technology is used in swamp coolers and window AC units. These are much more efficient than compression AC systems, only using 15% to 30% of the electricity. But they come with one major drawback, they inherently add humidity to the air they produce. This humidifying is no problem for arid climates like Arizona or Utah, but it’s not an appealing option for anyone along the coast. However, an impressive new dehumidifier technology called cold-SNAP could change all that.
The cold-SNAP system was developed by scientists at Wyss Institute, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), and the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities (HCGBC). This sci-fi-like technology uses a ceramic coated with a hydrophobic material. This system prevents the air from becoming humid as it’s processed. As a result, the unit doesn’t need a vapor compression system, drastically increasing cooling efficiency and lowering energy costs. Even better, this system doesn’t use refrigerant, so it has a much lower environmental impact. Wyss Institute is currently planning on production and release within the next five years.
The technology behind solar absorption refrigeration systems has technically been around for a while but is now becoming a viable option for residential markets. These systems use solar panels combined with an absorption chiller refrigeration system. Absorption chillers function similarly to compression AC systems but use a heat source combined with a refrigerant mix of water, ammonia, or lithium bromide instead of a compressor. Since these systems run on solar energy, they have no carbon footprint and have the potential to provide clean, renewable central air.
Previously, these systems were not viable for most homeowners, as older, less efficient solar panels put too much of a burden on buyers. Originally, a homeowner would need over 86 square feet for one of these systems to produce enough energy to create the output of a window air conditioner. However, recent improvements and upgrades in renewable energy and energy storage technology have made these systems more practical. Installations like those at Santa Clara University are an example of their wider applications.
The old phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” rings true more often than not. When backed into a corner, we’re boundlessly clever and able to come up with truly innovative ideas. The entries on this list are prime examples. From terra-cotta plates creating hydrophobic, moisture-proof swamp coolers to solar-powered lithium-based cooling systems, when faced with a dire need for innovation, we rarely disappoint.
The fight for air conditioner sustainability and efficiency is only beginning. In 2018, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) created the Global Cooling Prize. This was a global competition to create new air conditioning systems that were at least five times better than existing models. There were ultimately two finalists, Gree Electric Appliances and Daikin Industries. While these two new systems are still in their infancy, they show us that solutions are on the horizon.
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