More than a third of all the electricity consumed in the United Arab Emirates goes to one simple, yet essential task – keeping us cool. That soars to as much as 70 percent during summer. In sweltering countries with poor electricity systems, such as Iraq or Lebanon, the lack of air conditioning is a threat not just to comfort, but to survival.
Climate change is accelerating this challenge. Average UAE temperatures have climbed from about 27.5 degrees Celsius in the 1950s to over 28 degrees in the 2000s, and above 29 degrees in 2021. Iraq has heated up nearly three degrees since the 1980s. The extreme heat events affecting southern Europe, and parts of the United States and China demonstrate that demand for cooler air is only going to increase globally.
Urbanization, the loss of vegetation and surface water, and the proliferation of brick, concrete, and asphalt surfaces that absorb heat and re-radiate it at night, make cities even hotter than the average, and give people little relief even when the sun sets.
In the Gulf, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain have committed to net-zero carbon targets between 2050 and 2060, and the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is under increasing pressure to decarbonize. Yet expanding populations, more and bigger buildings, and surging middle class lifestyles require more electricity, and gas and oil combustion remains the main means of producing it – burning money to cool homes but heat the planet.
Wealthy GCC states can, and will, grow increasingly reliant on solar, wind, and nuclear power. But this is impossible for a country like Iraq, where the population rises by a million each year and where peak electricity production capacity is only 22 gigawatts when 35 GW is needed in summer.
There are about 60 million A/C units in the Middle East today, and the International Energy Agency sees that growing to 210 million by 2050. The growth will be even more dramatic in populous countries now reaching middle-income status, such as India and Indonesia. The MENA region certainly needs more air conditioning, but it also needs to be much more intelligent about how it manages its increasingly extreme temperatures.
Four broad approaches can help us keep cool at a reasonable cost to pocket and planet. The first is more mindful behavior – not cooling unused rooms, shading windows from the sun, minimizing cooling while away, using fans rather than chillers when temperatures aren’t too high, and not cooling indoor spaces to Arctic levels. Reforming energy subsidies, encouraging consumers to pay a fair price for power, and charging more at peak periods are frugal strategies for people, governments, and the environment.
Second comes better air conditioning technology. This can be as simple as using the most energy-efficient models on the market. Better control systems can avoid pointlessly cooling empty areas, for example, by connecting a single exterior unit to two indoor units and managing the flow between them intelligently. Many modern units use hydrofluorocarbons, which are powerful greenhouse gases, and often leak, but can be replaced with non-warming alternatives.
New ideas are promising. American companies Transaera and Bill Gates-backed Blue Frontier, for example, use salts or sponge-like materials to remove humidity from the air before cooling it, reducing energy use by up to 70 percent. Barocal, developed at Cambridge University, has developed cheap, non-toxic “plastic crystals” that absorb and release heat – instead of gases – when pressure is applied or removed.
Last June, Strata Manufacturing, the aerospace unit of Mubadala Investment Company, revealed a partnership with two German companies, Hyperganic, an artificial intelligence-based engineering system, and EOS, an industrial 3D printing company. The intention is to develop the world’s most efficient residential air conditioning system.
Meanwhile, district cooling, where a central plant distributes cold water, is increasingly adopted in new developments in the GCC. It can reduce electricity use by about half and has twice the lifetime of conventional systems. Empower, Emicool, and Tabreed are UAE-based district cooling providers that are expanding into Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India. But it’s somewhat inflexible, better suited to sites with a high population density, and not easily retrofitted to existing buildings.
A third approach is to make buildings more energy efficient. Simple fixes include better insulation around windows and doors, shading exposed areas, and painting dark surfaces white. Smart systems can cool ahead of the hottest midday period or before evening when solar generation drops off, effectively using buildings as thermal batteries to limit load on the grid.
Innovative paints and materials, such as the optical films developed by SkyCool Systems in the United States, radiate heat into deep space using wavelengths that can pass through the atmosphere, saving up to 40 percent in air conditioning energy use.
Finally, we need to reimagine urban spaces – including by drawing inspiration from historic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cities, with their narrow, shady streets, white-washed facades, shutters, wind towers, flowing open water, and greenery. Shelters with solar air conditioning and cooling paints, and naturally cooled walkways and bicycle tracks allow people to get out of their cars and outdoor workers to recuperate even in the hotter months.
Working with nature rather than against it has the advantage of not being totally reliant on technology – and on uninterrupted electricity.
Investment in innovative air conditioning is miniscule compared to other green technologies. Last year, just $278 million of venture capital was spent on cooling our indoor spaces, versus $5.4 billion to solar, $3 billion to hydrogen, and even $384 million to electric airplanes. MENA, the hottest populous region in the world, will need more investment, and cool heads, to seize the air conditioning opportunity.
Robin M Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis. Twitter: @robinenergy