Cook’s Air Conditioning Lake City – As California experienced a record heat wave last month, power consumption in the state soared, forcing grid operators to provide permanent blackouts for the first time in nearly 20 years. Why was the network under such a load? Millions and millions of air conditioners were running full blast. It was a clear example of the challenges humanity will face trying to keep everyone cool as the planet overheats.
This problem goes both ways: climate change increases the demand for air conditioning, refrigeration and other technologies that keep us and our food cool. However, cooling is a significant contributor to the climate crisis.
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According to a recent UN report, refrigeration accounted for 17 percent of global electricity demand in 2018. Much of the electricity that powers these devices is produced by burning fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming. To make matters worse, most refrigerators and air conditioners today use a class of refrigerants called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide.
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The problem is getting worse: global air-conditioning use will triple by mid-century as warming creates more demand in rich countries and billions of people in the developing world gain access to the technology for the first time. “If we don’t act together, air conditioners will cook us,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of IGSD’s Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and co-chair of the steering committee of the new UN report.
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The good news is that many of the solutions we need to make cooling more climate-friendly already exist. We need to remove HFCs from our refrigerators and air conditioners, make our cooling technology more efficient, properly dispose of old and leaking refrigerants instead of landfills, and design our buildings and cities to stay cool. If we can do all this, our quest to stay cool may not accidentally boil us alive.
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Experts say the first two solutions – eliminating HFCs and increasing the efficiency of air conditioners and refrigerators – can be achieved by implementing the Kigali Amendment, which requires countries to replace HFCs with more climate-friendly refrigerants and also to improve efficiency. makes it possible. through other policies and standards. The amendment is the latest addition to the Montreal Protocol, the landmark 1980s agreement that saved Earth’s ozone layer by phasing out ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, once widely used in refrigeration as well as packaging materials and hairspray. Finally, HFCs replacing CFCs do not destroy ozone, but they do destroy our climate, so the treaty must be renewed to eliminate the use of HFCs.
There are already cleaner substitutes for HFCs. Chief among them are hydrofluoroolefins, or HFOs, which are already used in the air conditioning systems of more than 70 million cars and have the same impact on the climate as carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide itself, first used in refrigeration more than a century ago, is poised to return to the commercial refrigeration scene.
If fully implemented, the phase-out of HFCs called for by the Kigali Amendment would help humanity avoid warming of 0.4 degrees C (0.72 degrees F) this century, the “biggest climate change mitigation commitment ever adopted will become an element,” Zaelke said. Although the treaty entered into force in 2019, it is still far from universal acceptance. Despite rare bipartisan and industry support (US companies are well-positioned to be major producers of HFO), President Trump inexplicably failed to send it to the Senate for ratification. If elected, Joe Biden has already committed to adopting the plan into his administration.
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The Kigali Amendment benefits if, in the process of replacing HFCs with greener alternatives, the industry also makes design changes to improve the efficiency of refrigeration equipment – something it has done in the past when phasing out CFCs. In their latest report, Zaelke and colleagues estimate that the combined effect of HFC phasing out and efficiency gains could prevent 460 billion tons of CO2 emissions over the next 40 years, which represents nearly eight years of global greenhouse gas emissions at current levels. According to the International Energy Agency, doubling the energy efficiency of air conditioners worldwide could also save nearly $3 trillion in electricity costs by 2050.
“There’s still a lot of energy efficiency you can squeeze out of an air conditioning and refrigeration system,” said Kristen Taddonio, senior climate and energy advisor at IGSD. The switch from HFCs to cleaner refrigerants presents a huge opportunity for manufacturers to improve efficiency, Taddonio said, “because when you do that, your engineers go back to the drawing board.” Minimum energy performance standards, voluntary labeling schemes such as the EPA’s Energy Star program, and government procurement programs for energy-efficient appliances can help the process and encourage the refrigeration industry to market more efficient products once Kigali is implemented.
Governments should also address all HFC-filled refrigerators and air conditioners in the wild, which are expected to store 64 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050. Although the Kigali Amendment phased out the production of new HFCs, it did not resolve the issue. emissions of HFCs during leakage or device disposal. Nor is enforcing regulations on leaking air conditioners and refrigerators a priority in the U.S.: According to a 2019 report by the Environmental Research Agency, a typical supermarket refrigeration system leaks up to 25 percent of its coolant each year. With no federal requirements to ensure that end-of-life refrigerators and air conditioners are properly disposed of, the refrigerant that circulates in them, as well as the chemicals used in them, such as replacement canisters and insulation foam used for repairs, often end up in “landfills.” It eventually enters the atmosphere. it happens,” Taddonio said.
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While we wait for government action on HFCs, we can reduce demand for air conditioning by designing buildings and cities that stay cool naturally. Simple measures like planting more trees and painting rooftops white can go a long way in reducing the so-called urban heat island effect, a process in which dark sidewalks and rooftops and heat from air conditioners (ironically) cause urban temperatures to rise several degrees. warmer than the surrounding villages. “If you use a cool roof on any air-conditioned building, you’re reducing the solar heat gain for that building,” said George Ban-Weiss, an associate professor at the University of Southern California who studies the urban heat island effect. . “It reduces your need for air conditioning.”
Improving buildings and designing new ones to keep them cooler, such as optimizing window placement to reduce heat gain, can also help. New cooling systems, such as the experimental “Cold Pipe” recently tested outdoors in hot and humid Singapore, can help people cool down by using chilled water to absorb heat radiation from people standing nearby.
Fixing cooling is not just a climate issue, it’s also an issue of climate justice. According to data shared by Taddonio of the California Energy Commission, during a recent heat wave that caused rapid power outages in California, refrigerators required about 20 gigawatts, more than double the normal load of 9 gigawatts. While these devices are being distributed across the state, low-income communities and communities of color are the most affected by planned power outages. “Every time there’s a heat wave, the demand increases, and then the way you try to avoid major blackouts is to cut costs, and it’s usually the vulnerable communities who pay the price,” said Roshanak Nateghi, associate professor. in industrial engineering from Purdue University.
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Those communities are already disproportionately at risk of heat waves because their neighborhoods have fewer trees, experience more severe heat island effects, and often contain older and less energy-efficient buildings. “In many cases, more affluent communities have tree-lined streets and lots of green space,” Ban-Weiss said. “And that makes a difference in comfort.”
Ensuring everyone has access to clean, efficient cooling will go a long way towards making the world more resilient to climate change. Reducing street heat by adding greenery and renovating homes will meanwhile ensure that the most vulnerable are better equipped to withstand short-term power outages when the next heat wave hits.
“I would also note that passive cooling strategies generally reduce AC usage,” Ban-Weiss said. “So they were actually able to prevent blackouts.”
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