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A/C bill high this summer? Cool innovations promise more efficient air conditioning

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On a scorching summer day, there are fewer sounds more comforting than this.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR CONDITIONING UNIT HUMMING)

SUMMERS: Air conditioning can provide not only comfort but life-saving relief from relentless heat. But as you may have noticed from your summertime electricity bill, typical AC units use a ton of energy, so companies are coming up with new ways to make cooling off more energy-efficient. Climate and energy reporter Casey Crownhart wrote about it this week for the MIT Technology Review. Hey, Casey.

CASEY CROWNHART: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Casey, you wrote that not only is typical AC technology really energy-intensive, but there's also this intense global demand for it in places where it's not already pervasive. Can you just start by giving us a sense of what that demand looks like, how much we're talking about?

CROWNHART: Absolutely. I think we in the U.S. tend to think of air conditioning as being pretty much everywhere, but globally, that's definitely not the case. Of the roughly 3 billion people that live in the hottest parts of the world, only about 1 in 10 has access to air conditioning. And so as, you know, we've seen the last few weeks, temperatures are rising. So there's a huge demand for cooling that's expected to take off. Over the next few decades, we could see energy demand for air conditioning triple by 2050.

SUMMERS: Wow.

CROWNHART: And that's about the same as adding a whole nother U.S. electrical grid on just to run all of those new air conditioners.

SUMMERS: I mean, that sounds like a huge feat. I know that you have been looking into some promising developments in AC technology, but like many people listening in on our conversation, I need a quick refresher on how a typical AC works and why it is that it sucks up so much energy.

CROWNHART: Yeah, you're definitely not alone in that. But basically, the way that an air conditioner works is that there's a refrigerant inside, and it gets pumped around in a cycle. And so that refrigerant sucks up heat from inside of your house, apartment building. And then it releases that heat out into the outside air. And so it can take a lot of energy. And a lot of that comes from also having to get humidity out of the air. Getting water out of the inside and condensing it into a liquid and getting it out is really energy-intensive as well.

SUMMERS: You're also right that one of the materials companies are turning to for these new AC systems are desiccants, like those little packets that you sometimes find in food packaging. How does that work?

CROWNHART: Yeah. So this is a really interesting kind of way to change up air conditioning technology, which, you know, hasn't changed too much since it was invented around a hundred years ago. Desiccants are basically any kind of material that can suck moisture out of the air. So I talked about how, you know, humidity is a big part of that energy demand. And so how these desiccants can work is they're able to kind of take care of that humidity piece. And so then if you're pairing these materials with other kinds of cooling technologies, they can kind of cut down on the energy that's needed to cool spaces.

SUMMERS: So I'm sort of fascinated by these newer AC systems that you've been looking into. Tell us. How much energy could they save potentially compared to standard units today? And would a cheaper electricity bill just be offset by a higher price tag on the unit itself?

CROWNHART: Really good questions. So I will say that a lot of the companies that are working on this are kind of still in the early stages. You know, they have kind of their pilot or demonstration systems out. But I talked to one company. They're called Blue Frontier, and they're based in Florida. And they say that they think that their system will be able to cut annual electricity use by between 50 and 80%. And they do say that it will probably be more expensive up front. They're targeting, you know, kind of a payback date of, you know, three to five years or so. That's how long it'll take for the efficiency improvements to kind of pay for themselves through lower energy bills. So for the rest of the lifetime of the unit, then you're kind of, you know, able to see those savings.

SUMMERS: So, Casey, then is the bigger price tag up front a barrier for these new AC technologies being able to be adopted in places where demand is growing so much today, like in developing countries?

CROWNHART: Yeah, I mean, it absolutely can be. And that's the case today. There's actually a pretty big difference between, you know, the cheapest air conditioners on the market today and kind of the higher-end ones that are already more efficient than those kind of lower-end systems. And so I think we're definitely going to need to see things like, you know, new business models from companies that help finance these models or policy from governments so that, you know, more people can actually get access to them.

SUMMERS: Climate and energy reporter Casey Crownhart of the MIT Technology Review. Casey, thank you.

CROWNHART: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.