Global energy demand from air conditioners is set to triple by 2050, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The global stock of air conditioners in buildings will grow to 5.6 billion by 2050, up from 1.6 billion today – which amounts to 10 new air conditioners sold every second for the next 30 years, according to the report.
It's a scary statistic because using air conditioners and fans to stay cool already accounts for about a fifth of the total electricity used in buildings around the world or 10 per cent of all global electricity consumption today.
But as incomes and living standards improve in many developing countries, the growth in AC demand in hotter regions is set to soar.
Supplying power to these air conditioners comes with large costs and environmental implications.
One crucial factor is that the efficiency of these new air conditioners can vary widely. For example, air conditioners sold in Japan and the European Union are typically 25% more efficient than those sold in the United States and China.
Efficiency improvements could cut the energy growth from AC demand in half through mandatory energy performance standards.
IEA executive director, Dr Fatih Birol, said growing electricity demand for air conditioning is one of the most critical blind spots in today’s energy debate.
“With rising incomes, air conditioner ownership will skyrocket, especially in the emerging world,” Birol said.
“While this will bring extra comfort and improve daily lives, it is essential that efficiency performance for ACs be prioritized. Standards for the bulk of these new ACs are much lower than where they should be.”
The report identifies key policy actions compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
In its analysis, the IEA found that through stringent minimum energy performance standards and other measures such as labelling, the average energy efficiency of the stock of air conditioners worldwide could more than double between now and 2050.
This would greatly reduce the need to build new electricity infrastructure to meet rising demand.
“Setting higher efficiency standards for cooling is one of the easiest steps governments can take to reduce the need for new power plants, and allow them at the same time to cut emissions and reduce costs,” Dr Birol said.
The report found significant variations in efficiency based on the type of equipment used and the size of the cooling system. For example, it found large chillers and split air conditioners tend to be significantly more efficient compared to rooftop and packaged units.
Most countries that have sizeable cooling loads have introduced Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) with 85% of the air conditioners sold worldwide in 2016 covered by MEPS.
“There are several areas where efficiency of existing AC technologies could be improved, including aerodynamically efficient fan blades, more efficient compressors, improved inverter technology to control the speed of the compressor motor, and the use of variable speed drives on fan motors,” the report said.
It also suggests thermal zoning, enhanced controls and predictive control as well as better sizing, installation and maintenance.
The report, entitled the Future of Cooling, warns that the world faces a 'cold crunch'. Here are some of the facts at a glance:
By 2050, two thirds of the world's households could have an air conditioner. China, India and Indonesia together will account for half of the total number;
Without action to address energy efficiency, energy demand for space cooling will more than triple by 2050 – consuming as much electricity as all of China and India today;
Investing in more efficient air conditioners could cut future energy demand in half. The report outlines a number of scenarios showing how this could be achieved;
Between 1990 and 2016, annual sales of air conditioners nearly quadrupled to 135 million units. The bulk of these units were packaged and split system air conditioners. By the end of 2016 around 1.6 billion air conditioners were in use;
Household ownership of air conditioners varies enormously across countries from around four per cent in India, less than 10 per cent in Europe to over 90 per cent in the United States and Japan, and close to 100 per cent in a few Middle Eastern countries;
Today, there are twice as many fans in use as air conditioners in households, but the ratio is falling quickly as air conditioner ownership expands. Fans typically use less than 10 per cent of the energy consumed by a packaged or split-system AC for an equivalent space.