Innovation prize seeks new cooling solutions, as Sir Richard Branson calls current AC technology ‘pathetic’
US energy body The Rocky Mountain Institute has officially opened the cooling industry’s most valuable prize for applications and is seeking industry input, both in the £3m prize and in the policy debate surrounding it.
The Institute has created a splash in engaging Sir Richard Branson to provide high-profile backing and a provocative call to arms.
The Award seeks to incentivise development of a residential cooling solution that will have at least five times less climate impact than today’s standard RAC units, which the RMI notes ‘could prevent up to 100 Gigatons [billion US tons] CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050, and put the world on a pathway to mitigate up to 0.5 deg C of global warming by 2100, all while enhancing living standards for people in developing countries around the globe.’
The criteria states that any proposed solutions must provide the 80 per cent climate impact reduction at a cost of no more than twice that of current standard units.
Alongside the competition, the organisers say they are rallying a global coalition of leaders in a bid to solve the critical climate threat that comes from growing demand for residential air conditioning. They say: “By harnessing the power of innovation, we can provide cooling solutions that enhance people’s lives without contributing to runaway climate change.”
The organisers have signed up a roster of ‘outreach partners’ from industry, policymakers and NGOs, including the UN Environment Programme, ASHRAE and the German Energy Agency.
Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Unite charitable foundation is one of the partners, has done his bit to help create a media storm, by publishing a call to arms in which he declares the current efficiency of AC technology is ‘pathetic’
Sir Richard says: “’Disruption” is a word that gets overused. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that shaking up entrenched, complacent industries can do a world of good…I’ve spent a large part of my career working to unsettle more mainstream industries from airlines and soft drinks to trains and hotels, mobile phones and media. Another industry that has caught my eye recently is particularly ripe for disruption.”
He provocatively notes that AC is set to grow to become a nearly $400 billion industry by 2050, yet is based on a technology ‘that has not fundamentally changed since its invention over 100 years ago’ and where ‘a handful of companies dominate the channels to market, and generally spend far more on advertising than they do on R&D’
Sir Richard goes on to note that worldwide, by 2030, extreme heat could lead to a $2 trillion loss in labour productivity, so there is a huge need for technology change. He says:” Despite a 100-year runway, the most advanced products have only achieved 14 per cent of their maximum theoretical efficiency. If we can trigger a major technology change, it could be the single biggest technology-based step we can take to arrest climate change.”
But the most provocative aspect for the cooling industry is that he accuses the manufacturers of having a vested interest in not innovating. He says: “The bad news is that incumbent manufacturers, left to their own devices, won’t do what we need. They are in the business of selling as many air conditioners as they can, as cheaply as they can. To the extent that they think about efficiency at all, it is because regulators force them too (and they don’t force them very much, either). The control exercised by a small number of players means that entrepreneurs and innovators find it difficult to find their way to buyers (or investors who will back them). High R&D costs present a major barrier to entry…We need to convince governments to aggressively raise energy efficiency standards and phase out the most damaging refrigerants…We also need to raise the technology ceiling. Commercial LED lighting has achieved nearly 70 per cent of maximum theoretical efficiency. Solar panels have reached 40 per cent. I’m no AC expert, but 14 per cent seems pathetic.”
The three million dollar Global Cooling Prize, he concludes “is a great way for entrepreneurs and innovators to get the visibility and support they need. It is also might just, finally, spur the industry into action. And it might attract the attention of other hyper-competitive technological geniuses.”
With such provocation, it seems incumbent on the industry to take up the challenge: the Prize is now open for applications at: https://applicant.globalcoolingprize.org/register
The stakeholders in the prize will be taking part in a number of awareness-raising events in the coming months. More information can be found at https://globalcoolingprize.org