President of the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Equipment Manufacturers Association (AREMA), Mark Padwick, explains how industry and government need to work together to protect Australia's electricity supply.

As everyone who works in the air conditioning and refrigeration industry in NSW and Queensland knows, this past summer was brutally hot. The heatwave that covered much of Eastern Australia was historic, with our nation officially recognized as one of the hottest places on the globe, and dozens of temperature records smashed.

It is little wonder everyone and everything was at breaking point: including the electricity grid.

The media reported on the potential for the grid to collapse and linked this danger directly to the use of air conditioners.

Air conditioning and refrigeration does use large amounts of electricity: annually about 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity production is needed to power this sector. On very hot days it is responsible for almost all of the increased load.

This analysis overlooks an area of tremendous achievement that worked successfully in the background over this summer – and years past - to safeguard Australia’s electricity system.

Over the past 20 years, Federal Governments of all persuasions have worked closely with industry to mandate improved energy efficiency of air conditioners.

These efforts have been phenomenally successful: according to the Department of Energy and Environment, air conditioners today are 60 per cent more efficient than they were 20 years ago, with two-thirds of that improvement coming in the last decade.

Why didn’t the grid collapse across NSW and Queensland in the February? Well air conditioners kept people cool with quiet efficiency.

Imagine if all of the air conditioners across the country were 10, 20 or 30 per cent less efficient than they are today - there is simply no way that there would have been either sufficient electrical generation, or the transmission and distribution systems, necessary to deliver that massively increased load.

The fact that many of us stayed cool, and for the most part the air conditioners stayed on, is due directly to the successful partnership of government and industry.

The news is not all good looking forward, however.

Many improvements to these types of equipment have now been made – and there are real and practical limits to what future technical improvements are available, particularly at a reasonable cost.

Indeed in its recent work to set new standards for air conditioners, the Department of Energy and the Environment noted that in some places further improvements are either not available nor cost effective. Industry is waiting for energy efficiency levels to be agreed so we can get on with the job.

While more improvements will be found, the rate of improvement for the equipment cannot continue as it has over the last 20 years.

If this piece were about light bulbs, our story would end now without a silver lining. Light bulbs pretty much give you a certain number of lumens while using a particular number of watts and costing a specific number of dollars. Pretty much you get what you pay for.

The same is not true with air conditioning. Sure, there is an estimated amount of cooling for a certain amount of energy, but many people never get what was promised on the box or by the salesman.

Instead the equipment sold is not right for the job and the equipment never can meet the demands of a hot day

Or, the installation is poorly done and the cold air leaves the room in a whoosh when the door is opened.

Or, the equipment is not adequately maintained and fans and coils are covered with gunk reducing efficiencies and making the machine work harder to try and compensate.

While Australian industry does not have solid data on how often these incidents occur, or what the specific consequences are, the anecdotal evidence is that they happen far too often.

Some preliminary US data suggests that about 40 per cent of all equipment suffers from one of these failings and that the efficiency cost can be 20 per cent or more for each instance.

Industry is already addressing these challenges. AREMA, partnered with AMCA and the ARBS Foundation, is providing thousands of dollars in scholarships to ensure we have the trained workforce available to address these issues. But it is not enough

Governments need to work with industry to change their gaze from just looking at efficiency at point of sale to helping ensure that, for our consumers, our air conditioning systems deliver what is promised and that the electrical demands in future heat waves are able to be met.

If we do deliver on this opportunity than there is a very real chance that we will be able respond to the heat waves of the future in comfort and without disrupting the electricity supply.


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