It’s that time of year again, at least throughout most of the country. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to air conditioning in our homes and places of work are spending a lot of time indoors, happy to have refuge from the heat.
Happy that is, until the power bill arrives at the end of the month.
The fact is, air conditioning can be pricey. During the hottest months, it can easily account for more than half of a family’s monthly power bill. And while people have resorted to all sorts of tricks to keep the power bill down when the mercury rises, from frequently showering to donning wet clothes, few of these tips provide sustained cooling to people who can’t afford air conditioning.
Scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory last week had news of a potential breakthrough that could cool the air far more efficiently. The prototype they developed eliminates the condenser and the compressor, which are core components – and also the power hogs – of today’s air conditioning systems. In their place, it uses something called an evaporative cooler, which essentially evaporates water from a wet surface with a fan to create cool air.
Scientists who developed the technology, known as Desiccant-Enhanced evaporative or DEVap, are hopeful it could lower energy consumption from air conditioning by up to 75%, while at the same time delivering other benefits.
Because the technology removes moisture from the air, it could also reduce humidity levels. Anyone who’s ever complained, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” understands the value of that.
Now the reality check: Even under the most optimistic forecasts, this technology is a good three years from being commercialized, and even then it could face barriers to widespread adoption. Like solar-powered air conditioners, which offer the promise of reduced energy use, but have not yet been widely adopted, the DEVap technology is expensive. Although it would produce large energy savings, it is not yet clear that those long-term savings would offset the steep upfront investment.
This cost-benefit ratio is a critical detail that limits the adoption of so many promising new technologies, in renewable energy and other industries. It helps — to a point — to educate investors about the long-term cost savings. But we also need to recognize that less expensive technologies will always be adopted more rapidly and that it often makes sense to invest in promising new technologies to drive down their cost.
And, with temperatures topping 90 throughout much of the country, we must also remember that air conditioning is not a luxury. It can be a matter of life and death and people should be able to access the basic comfort it provides without breaking the bank.