Nobody really likes window air conditioners: yes, they can make a hot day more bearable, but they are also ugly, noisy, block the view and contribute to climate change. But the number of air conditioners is about to rise, both as the planet gets hotter and a growing number of people in developing countries can finally afford the technology. By 2050, according to one prediction, there will be 5.6 billion air conditioners in use, up from about 1.6 billion now.
Several companies are trying to find ways to solve the problem. course, a San Francisco-based startup, is designing an alternative that could help address the challenges of traditional air conditioners — and that doubles as an efficient heater when it’s cold. When used for both heating and cooling, the device can reduce the carbon footprint of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) by 75%. As the grid shifts to renewables, that footprint could essentially be completely eliminated, so turning on the AC doesn’t have the ironic effect of making future heatwaves more likely due to global warming.
“We realized that air conditioning is an important public health need,” said Vince Romanin, CEO of Gradient, which emerged from the research and innovation lab Otherlab, a company that studies the energy system in detail and designs new solutions. “And we realized that we’re in a kind of vicious circle where today’s systems have really high CO2 emissions and are increasing in use. It doesn’t have to be – technology exists to make heating and cooling systems that don’t have high CO2 emissions. The company is here to break this cycle and create products that allow you to be cool and comfortable without heating the planet,” says Romanin.
Some more efficient air conditioners already exist, but they usually require professional installation and that drives up the cost. “People typically buy the lowest-efficiency product on the market,” he says. “And that’s because the upfront costs are just a lot for people to deal with.” Gradient designed his device to work like a more expensive heat pump (technically all air conditioners are heat pumps, but the industry uses the term to refer to devices that can both heat and cool), but because it’s easy to install, the buyer can it itself. The company hasn’t released the pricing of the units yet, but says it’s aiming to make the most efficient technology accessible to more people first. Ultimately, it wants to be able to compete with the cheapest air conditioners.
Because refrigerants in air conditioners: powerful greenhouse gases, the company also chose a low-emission refrigerant that goes beyond what industry regulations require. Unlike a typical air conditioner that has two options – on and off – the Gradient device has a variable speed drive, so it can run up and down, using only the amount of energy it needs. It is connected to Wi-Fi, so it can also adapt when the power grid is in high demand. The device also reduces emissions by replacing heat on fossil fuels in winter. (For now, it’s only suitable for relatively warm climates, though it could help people in colder climates turn down their other heaters, and the team is working to make it better for extreme winters.)
The company isn’t trying to convince customers to buy the product based on the climate benefits, but because it hopes they prefer the experience. It’s under the window, so light still gets in. It’s big, but not an ugly box. The noisy components are outside so it’s quieter than traditional units, and the variable speed drive also helps to lower the volume.
“We don’t think the way to move an industry forward is to ask people to pay for their reduction in their carbon footprint,” says Romanin. “We want to build products that provide a better user experience, and make their homes more comfortable and beautiful. In all other industries, you see that’s what drives change fast enough to have an impact. And when it comes to emissions, we really don’t have much time. We need to start replacing fossil fuel furnaces and inefficient HVAC as soon as possible if we are to meet our climate reduction targets. So we need to make the product people want on its own merits so we can drive adoption as quickly as possible.”
The company is now seeking participants to beta test the devices and plans to begin commercial production in 2022.