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Editor's Page


A story about air conditioning, business and energy

Mark R. Howard | 6/1/2010

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

It is June in Florida, the line of demarcation when most Floridians begin to perceive air conditioning as compulsory rather than discretionary. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, the growing middle class in the developing economies of Asia and South America now share Americans’ predilection for comfort, including the allure of indoor climate control. In China, the air-conditioning market grew by about 13% from 2000-05 and will grow by a roughly similar margin from 2005-10. In a country with more than a billion people, that’s a lot of cold air.

Therein lies a story about business, and about energy.

Air conditioners have become more sophisticated over the years, but one thing hasn’t changed much, at least in the A/C systems in the U.S. The compressor, which is the heart of the system, runs at a steady number of revolutions per minute. While you can adjust the speed of the fan that blows the air around the house, the compressor is either on, or it’s off. Imagine driving a car that instantly began revving at a fixed rpm when you switched it on and then cut off when you reached your desired speed, regardless whether you were going uphill, downhill, slow or fast. That’s the way most A/C compressors still work.

Since the compressor consumes the most energy in an A/C system, that inefficiency is expensive. There is better technology available: So-called “inverter” compressors use electronics and other design features to enable the compressor to operate at variable speeds, speeding up or slowing down depending on the cooling demands on the system. Inverter equipment uses at least 30% less energy than traditional, fixed-speed compressors.

Other countries have moved to capture the energy savings available through the technology. In Japan, for example, a focus on energy conservation standards by government and business means every residential air-conditioning system in the country uses variable speed compressors. In China, government and business are likewise on the same page, and by the end of this year, 30% of all A/C compressors will use inverter technology. In Europe, 25% of all residential A/C systems use inverters, and the technology has become standard there.

The bad news is that in the U.S., the percentage of residential A/C units with variable speed compressors is zero. And the percentage of commercial A/C units with inverters is only about 10%.

The good news in those numbers is that while much of our country’s energy focus has been on building more power generation — with lots of resources going into new coal and nuclear plants and high-cost, inefficient “alternative” power from solar and biomass — there’s still plenty of low-hanging fruit in terms of savings from energy conservation. And it’s the kind of conservation that has business and investment attached to it rather than just hand-wringing appeals to turn up the thermostat and turn off the lights when you leave the room.

One Florida-based company with a big commercial interest in energy conservation is Danfoss Turbocor, a joint venture between a $4.5-billion-a-year Danish multinational firm called Danfoss and a group of Australian entrepreneurs. At a factory in Tallahassee, the firm manufactures A/C compressors for commercial systems using some of the most sophisticated technology in the world. Inside the firm’s compressors, the shaft can turn from 0 up to 40,000 rpm (compared to an average 3,600 rpm in a traditional fixed-speed model). The shaft is suspended in a magnetic field, meaning it’s nearly frictionless and requires no oil for lubrication — another energy savings. The units are both efficient and small — a Turbocor compressor used in the A/C system for a five-story office building is about the size of two big suitcases and weighs about 300 pounds, a fraction of the size of a traditional commercial compressor. The company’s factory is strikingly clean and modern, and conforms to rigorous ISO4000 international manufacturing standards. The faces among the 180-employee workforce reflect 21 nationalities.

Danfoss Turbocor exports half its production overseas. In addition to its manufacturing operation, the firm also does research on alternative refrigerants. The company’s president, Ricardo Schneider, says the company moved to Tallahassee two years ago to take advantage of talent graduating from FSU’s engineering school and to plug into the research capacity of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, less than a mile from Turbocor’s factory.

Schneider says inverter compressors cost about 20-25% more initially, but typically pay for themselves in energy savings within two to five years — well within the 20-year lifespan of a commercial system. The company estimates the 15,000 compressors it has sold to customers so far are saving about 750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 950 megawatt hours of electricity annually — that’s twice the capacity of some new coal plants under construction in the U.S. Schneider says the firm doesn’t currently make compressors for residential systems but may in the future.

Conservation, he believes, is just as important as adding generating capacity — “use better rather than build more,” as he puts it. Schneider, who’s been an official of the industry trade group that helps the government set efficiency standards for heating and cooling systems, believes strongly that government and business should cooperate in pushing higher efficiency standards for A/C systems. Other countries now require a SEER of 18; the U.S. began requiring a 13 SEER in 2006. “Our industry,” he says, “is way too conservative. We are behind most countries in terms of energy utilization. The question is not just how you should generate energy but also how you use energy,” he says. “You have to balance.”

Even allowing for Schneider’s mercenary interests, it’s impossible to deny that an investment that saves a megawatt is worth as much as one that generates a megawatt. “People are becoming more aware of the issues,” Schneider says. “The most sensitive green is money.”

The issues don’t stop with indoor climate control, Schneider says. “It’s the biggest challenge our society has ever had. If you look at what’s going on in Asia, if we don’t jump right away to the highest level of energy conservation, our CO2 equation doesn’t work.”

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