The race to build a better air conditioner

How do we cool a much hotter world?
How do we cool a much hotter world?
Image: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
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There are 1.2 billion residential air conditioners in the world today. That is expected to increase to 4.5 billion by 2030 as the world gets hotter, which will only make climate change worse.

To prevent that, a coalition of nonprofits, governments, and even a billionaire celebrity entrepreneur have launched the Global Cooling Prize, which aims to find a better air conditioner. The current ones not only emit a lot of noxious refrigerants that are worse than CO2 for their planetary effect—though many of those will be phased out as part of the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol—but they are also generally very inefficient. They draw a lot of power from electricity grids that don’t yet rely on renewable energy.

Because people generally choose their air conditioners based on price, there is little innovation in the market for a more- efficient AC. “We still have, effectively, climate disaster associated with just room air conditioners,” Iain Campbell, a managing director at Rocky Mountain Institute, the nonprofit helping lead the new $3-million prize, told Fast Company.

Another backer is Richard Branson, who has always liked a good challenge. “This is a $20-billion market ready for a shakeup,” Branson said, according to Fast Company. “The challenge is that the market is broken. Incumbent manufacturers follow market signals, which currently reward high volume and low price.”

The prize is looking at startups to submit a solution that has five times less “climate impact” than a current air conditioner, like zero carbon emissions at source and no more than 14 liters of water consumed a day. And it can be no more than twice the cost. Applications are now open. In 2019, 10 applicants will get $200,000 to build prototypes, which will then be tested in the hardest of real-life situations—in actual apartments during the summer in India, which is one of the backers of the prize.

The final prize is scheduled to awarded in November or December 2020.