Solar Cooling: The Future of Air Conditioning?

Solar cooling systems might be the future of air conditioning in Australia merely because the alternative solar air-conditioning technologies allow for huge energy and greenhouse gas savings.

The technology can turn solar heat into useful cooling by a thermal-driven cooling process which generates chilled water through solar collectors and an absorption cooling machine or “chiller” capable of converting heat into cold. Finally, the cold is delivered to the building by a dry cool air or chilled water mechanism.

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The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH) recently launched a Solar Cooling Special Technical Group (STG) aimed at gathering a team of professionals and experts from the field who can do research and advice the institute on these issues, including policy advice and regulation development.

AIRAH chief executive Phil Wilkinson said the goal of creating this new group was to support and encourage the application of solar cooling systems and to provide an information clearinghouse for those working in the solar cooling industry.

“As the sun beats down and air conditioners are turned up, what could be more logical than solar air conditioning? And with enthusiasm for solving Australia’s electricity grid issues, solar air conditioning could be one of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning industry’s answers to reducing both greenhouse gas issues and electricity infrastructure costs,” Wilkinson said.

AIRAH is also conducting work to create career pathways for engineers working on building services and refrigeration, and for “cooling engineers” to be recognized as its own occupation by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

“The model career pathway defines job titles, roles, tasks, skills and knowledge requirements of mechanical engineers working in the building services sector,” Wilkinson said.

“The development of the model career pathway is part of a process to help identify skills gaps in the HVAC&R (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration) sector in Australia.”

Solar cools Echuca

Echuca Regional Health public hospital in Victoria. Credit: Eco Generation

Most urban areas in Australia are located in subtropical and temperate regions with warm summers and mild winters. These weather conditions are perfectly suited to solar cooling systems and offer a huge opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, helping to combat climate change.

Furthermore, in warm seasons, the maximum demand for space cooling coincides with the maximum solar irradiation, meaning that the cooling demand is highest when the resource being used to power the cooling is most plentiful.

The technology is being established in a number of commercial buildings around the world, most of them in Europe. There are currently around 10 projects using this system in Australia. For example, Echuca Hospital in Victoria has installed a solar cooling system that saves $60,000 per year in energy costs and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 1,400 tons.

Nevertheless, solar cooling is still an emerging technology with many variants, leading AIRAH to acknowledge that researchers have yet to find a universal approach.

For that reason and others, AIRAH said, “there is a need to raise the profile of solar cooling in Australia, find solutions for Australian conditions and up-skill the local industry to rise to the challenge of developing and implementing effective solutions. The STG has been established to achieve these goals.”

By Mercedes Martty
Top Image: Solar Panels Plus
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