The Costs of Cooling
A push for energy-efficient AC units and alternative refrigerants
Those living in Canada right now, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, are currently grappling with two threats: a historic heat dome and a global pandemic that forces people to spend more time at home. During these extreme temperatures and high humidity, many people rely on their air conditioning (AC) to cool off. In 2017, 60% of Canadian households reported having some type of AC system in their home. Globally, the number of air conditioners is expected to grow from 1.6 billion to 5.6 billion between 2018-2050, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.
There are two pressing energy issues related to the massive growth in AC demand. First of all, this cooling requires a lot of electricity. If that electricity comes from CO2-producing coal or natural gas, as nearly 20% of Canadian electricity does, powering all these AC units will lead to higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The second issue lies in the types of chemicals used in cooling and refrigeration. Hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, are human-made chemicals that were introduced in the 1990s as a replacement for the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were destroying the ozone layer and have since been phased out of production under the Montreal Protocol. The good news is that HFCs don’t harm the ozone layer; but the bad news is that they have turned out to be an extremely potent GHG—up to 1,430 times better than CO2 at warming the planet—and the HFCs can leak out into the atmosphere during manufacturing, installation, or improper disposal of old AC units.
Key HFC Figures
Scientists have since estimated that HFCs account for up to 1% of the warming caused by all GHGs, which is a big deal considering they have only been around since the early 1990s. Because of this, governments came together to add the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The Kigali Amendment, which came into force on January 1, 2016, has the aim of reducing the use of HFCs by more than 80% over the next 30 years. Beginning in 2016, a specified group of developed countries began a phase-down of HFCs. Two groups of other countries will have until 2024 (China, Brazil, African countries) or 2028 (Bahrain, India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to freeze their levels. The graph below shows what this phase out would look like for GHG emissions compared to a business as usual scenario.
HFC emission scenarios by source and location with and without the Kigali amendment
If the 100 countries that have ratified the Kigali amendment begin their phase down and freeze, as instructed, we can avoid as much as 0.5°C warming by the end of the century. To achieve this, we have to ensure that energy efficient and lower global warming potential (GWP) alternatives are implemented and that they are not financially out of reach for those living in energy poverty.
Energy Poverty and AC Efficiency
Exacerbated by the sweltering effects of the heat dome in Canada, the cost of cooling a home in the middle of summer can make many Canadians sweat. Over the summer, air conditioners can account for up to 50% of your electricity bill. Considering that, it’s no wonder that households with an annual income of less than $20,000 are most likely to keep their AC turned off even when they are at home and awake. However, trying to get through the summer season without a working AC unit can lead to increased heat-related public health issues, which are more likely to be borne by lower-income Canadians. These are the costs of energy poverty, in relation to the high costs of cooling.
Energy poverty refers to individuals and households who are unable to afford the energy needed for day-to-day life. It is quantifiably measured by those households who spend more than 6% of their income on energy. Energy poverty can also be considered a public health issue—it is directly and indirectly associated with cardio-vascular and respiratory diseases, negative implications for mental health, and frequent occurrences of minor illnesses. In Canada, energy poverty is a growing issue due to rising energy prices, with the cost of electricity rising over 100% from 2006-2016. As of 2015, 8% of households in Canada were considered energy poor, with northern territories dealing with significantly higher electricity prices than the rest of Canada. Lower-income households across Canada are most affected by energy poverty. In 2013, almost 16 per cent of households earning $27,000, and almost 17 per cent of households earning between $27,000 and $47,700, were in energy poverty. Although access to utilities is a necessity, in 2015, 60, 000 homes were disconnected for failure to pay utilities, with a whopping $172.5 million total in outstanding hydro bills.
The energy poverty of individual provinces for 2015
Source: Statistics Canada
On top of all that, the costs of cooling also extend to increasing the temperature of cities. Air conditioning units tend to not only be energy-intensive but emit waste heat that makes the city hotter. Households who live in less efficient homes have higher energy costs than their counterparts in more efficient homes, as this ties into energy consumption. To address the energy poverty implications related to the high costs of cooling, while also lowering the high emissions of air conditioning units, Canada can work to make energy-efficient air conditioners that consume less energy, and those that use alternative, more environmentally friendly coolants, more accessible to lower-income and other vulnerable Canadians.
What are the alternatives to HFCs?
As the phase down on HFCs has already begun in select developed countries, alternatives are needed for cooling. Thankfully, we already have alternatives to HFCs in place: natural refrigerants, and “unsaturated” HFCs. Natural refrigerants, such as ammonia, hydrocarbons, and carbon dioxide, have a lower GWP and can be effectively swapped for HFCs. There are also chemicals called HFOs, which are less potent GHGs than their HFC counterparts. Embracing these kinds of alternatives, while also improving the energy efficiency of AC units, is the best way to go and in compliance with the Kigali amendment.
A 2019 study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has determined the combined GHG benefits of improving energy efficiency (30% more efficient than current technology) in AC and commercial refrigeration equipment together with using HFC alternatives. The authors found that by shifting the 2030 supply of AC and commercial refrigeration units to high energy efficiency and HFC-alternative refrigerants by 2050, we would avoid between 240-373 gigatons of global GHG emissions, depending on the energy efficiency level. This is a big reduction! To put that number into perspective, Canada’s total emissions in 2018 was only 729 megatons of GHGs.
Another study found that doubling the energy efficiency of AC units by 2050 would reduce the need for 1,300 gigawatts of electricity, which is roughly the amount produced by all the coal-fired power plants in China and India in 2018. This would also cut the annual per capita cost of space cooling in half by 2050. Strong policies and financing strategies can help promote faster HFC phase-down along with improvements in energy efficiency in cooling equipment.
The message here is simple: investing in alternative refrigerants and energy-efficient technologies for AC units will help people all around the world keep cool while also reducing GHG emissions.
As global warming leads to rising temperatures across the world, investing in innovative cooling solutions will help Canadians combat the heat with technologies that don’t contribute to the climate crisis. To ensure that the burden of heat-related illness and discomfort does not fall disproportionately on vulnerable and low-income Canadians, increasing the accessibility of AC units through policy and financing strategies is critical. Replacing HFCs with natural refrigerants or HFOs can mitigate the global warming potential of AC use, while improving the energy efficiency of these products will reduce the use of electricity produced by GHG-emitting sources. While these strategies require investment and financing to take off, these sustainable solutions have the potential to transform the market for AC units, which will not only keep Canadians cool at home, but also keep the planet cooler as well.