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Let's Use Solar Energy to Power Air-Conditioning, Save Billions and Cut Emissions

Question: if you can use solar power for cooling and air conditioning then why doesn't everybody do it? After all it's a match made in heaven: just when it's so hot you need the aircon, there's lots of solar energy around.

Answer: it's fairly new, not well known and there is a relatively high upfront cost. This makes it a candidate for some sort of net metering or feed in tariffs to kickstart the market, if ever I saw one.

So in this article I'm going to run you through the technology principles and alternatives, but first let's look at the problem.

The problem: we want to be cool

hot office workerIt's hot. You turn on the aircon or the fan. Your energy bill goes up

According to the NREL, "air conditioning currently consumes about 15% of the electricity generated in the United States. It is also a major contributor to peak electrical demand on hot summer days, which can lead to escalating power costs, brownouts, and rolling blackouts".

The picture is the same in Europe. For example, according to a national market survey by the Hellenic Ministry of Commerce, about 95% of air-conditioning sales in Greece occur in the period of May-August and reach about 200,000 units (primarily small-size split-type heat pumps) every year. The use of air-conditioning units in summer causes peak electric loads that periodically result in power shortages in large areas of metropolitan cities like Athens.

In southern European countries there is a well-established connection between the growth of peak power electricity demand in summer and the growth of air-conditioning sales in the small and medium-size market.

Air conditioning units on the outside of buildings in a city streetThe picture is the same throughout the world whenever there is hot weather. It leads to ugly city views like this one (right).

The fact that peak cooling demand happens at the same time as high availability of solar energy offers an opportunity to exploit solar thermal technologies that can match suitable solar cooling technologies (i.e., absorption, adsorption, and desiccant cooling), cut emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and in the longer run save billions of dollars in fuel costs.

The technical solutions

Space cooling uses thermally activated cooling systems driven (or partially driven) by solar energy. The two systems are:

  1. Closed-cycle:  a heat-driven heat pump that operates in a closed cycle with a working fluid pair, usually an absorbent-refrigerant such as LiBr-water and water-ammonia, or an adsorption cycle using sorption such as silica gel; two or more adsorbers are used to continuously provide chilled water;
  2. Open-cycle: solar thermal energy regenerates desiccant substances such as water by drying them, thereby cooling the air. Liquid or solid dessicants are possible. a combination of dehumidification and evaporative cooling of air.

Desiccant cooling system assisted by solar energy from air collectors and PV moduls. Pompeu Fabra Library

Desiccant cooling system assisted by solar energy from air collectors and PV moduls. Pompeu Fabra Library (Mataró, Spain) | Source: AIGUASOL

More case studies below the techy section, next.

Absorption NH3/H2O

Absorption NH3/H2O  schematic diagram

The single stage, continuous absorption refrigeration process works as follows: The working fluid (WF), mainly ammonia and water, is boiled in the generator, which receives heat from the solar collectors at 65–80°C. Mainly ammonia, but some water leaves and is condensed at the water cooled condenser (25–35°C). The boiling working fluid in the generator has therefore to be exchanged continuously using the pump to deliver strong working fluid with a concentration of 40% ammonia, from the absorber via the working fluid heat exchanger, which heats it to 50–65°C taken from the weaker fluid leaving the generator.

The latter, now cooler, is led to the absorber, and leaves the absorber at c.35°C. Meanwhile, the condensed refrigerant ammonia has left the condenser and is injected into the evaporator by the refrigerant control valve. This works at low pressure level (2–4 bar), and the refrigerant boils and evaporates. The cold vapour flows into the absorber which absorbs it, combines it with the working fluid, and sends in back to the generator.

The thermal coefficient of performance (COPthermal) describes the relation between the profit (cooling capacity) and the expense (heat from the collectors): COPthermal = Qcooling / Qheating

Absorption H2O/LiBr

Absorption H2O/LiBr  schematic diagramThis system employs a refrigerant expanding from a condenser to an evaporator through a throttle in an absorber/desorber combination that is akin to a "thermal compressor" in a conventional vapour compression cycle. Cooling is produced through the evaporation of the refrigerant (water) at low temperature. The absorbent then absorbs the refrigerant vapour at low pressure and desorbs into the condenser at high pressure when (solar) heat is supplied. In this a single-effect absorption system liquid refrigerant leaving the condenser expands through the throttle valve into evaporator taking its heat of evaporation from the stream of chilled water and cooling it.

The vapour leaving is absorbed by an absorbent solution entering dilute in refrigerant (strong absorption capability) leaving rich in refrigerant (weak absorption capability), where it is pumped via a heat exchanger to a desorber which regenerates the solution to a strong state by applying heat from the solar-heated water stream, causing the desorption of refrigerant. It condenses in the condenser to liquid, then expands into the evaporator. The absorber and condenser are cooled by streams of cooling water to reject the heats of absorption and condensation respectively.


Adsorption  schematic diagramAdsorption substances are working pairs, usually water/silica gel. The solid sorbent (gel) is alternately cooled and heated to be able to adsorb and desorb the refrigerant (water). A sequence of adsorbers in deployed to use the heat from one to power another. The cycle is (refer to the schematic diagram, right): refrigerant previously adsorbed in one adsorber is driven off through the use of hot water (may be solar-heated) (right compartment).

It then condenses in the condenser and the heat of condensation is removed by cooling water. The condensate is sprayed in the evaporator and evaporates under low partial pressure, producing cooling power. The refrigerant vapour is adsorbed into the other adsorber (left) where heat is removed by cooling water.

Open cycle liquid desiccant cooling

Open cycle liquid desiccant cooling  schematic diagram

Humidity is removed from the process air by the desiccant, which is then regenerated by heat from an available source, e.g. solar. Both solid and liquid hygroscopic materials may be used in the dehumidification of conditioned air.

Liquid desiccant systems can store cooling capacity by means of regenerated desiccant. Solar thermal energy is used whenever available to run the desorber and its associated components (hot water-to-solution heat exchanger, air-to-air recuperator, pump) to concentrate hygroscopic salt.

Later, when needed, this is used to dehumidify process air. This method of cold storage is the most compact, requires no insulation and can be applied for indefinitely long time periods.

Solid desiccant air handling unit 

Here, two air channels are mounted on top of each other. The outdoor air enters (A) where the sorption wheel with a silica gel surface dehumidifies is (B) and transfers heat from the outgoing air (C), rehumidifies it to the correct level then enters the conditioned space, increases its enthalpy by internal heat sources and moisture, and leaves as return air (G) where moisture (H and J) and heat (I) are removed as necessary and it is expelled (L).

Solid desiccant air handling unit  schematic diagramHighly effective solar collectors should be used for the heat regeneration. The Middle European climate allows an enhancement of the adiabatic cooling mode.

Relation between the cooling capacity and the regeneration heat: COPthermal, plant = Qc,plant / Qheat

Relation between the cooling load and the regeneration heat: COPthermal, build = Qc, build / Qheat

Desiccant-Enhanced Evaporative (DEVAP) Air Conditioner

Desiccant-Enhanced Evaporative (DEVAP) Air Conditioner  schematic diagramNREL, AILR Research, Inc. and Synapse Product Development have developed the DEVAP air conditioner. This consists of two stages: dehumidifier and indirect evaporative cooling.

Water is added to the tops of both; liquid desiccant is pumped through the first. Some outdoor air is mixed with return air from the building to form the supply air stream, which flows left to right through the two stages. In the dehumidifier, a membrane contains the desiccant while humidity from the supply air passes through it to the desiccant, which is also in thermal contact with a flocked, wetted surface that is cooled as outdoor air passes by it, causing the water to evaporate and indirectly cooling the desiccant.

In stage 2, the supply air passes by a water-impermeable surface that is wetted and flocked on its opposite side, providing indirect evaporative cooling. A small fraction of the cool, dry supply air is then redirected through the second-stage evaporative passages to evaporate water from the flocked surface and is then exhausted.


More information and a simplified evaluation tool called "Easy Solar Cooling" can help assess the cost performance of different technologies and system designs under different operating conditions. See:

Two examples of solar cooling in practice

Video of a large scale solar cooling in South Africa:

Solar cooling in Italy

Solar cooling for a department store in Rome, Italy: The 3,000 m2 of collector area run a 700 kW chiller.Solar cooling for a department store in Rome: The 3,000 m2 of collector area run a 700 kW chiller. Photo: Metro Cash & Carry 

The Italian minister for economic development, Claudio Scajola, inaugurated this innovative, energy saving project in Rome on a Metro Cash & Carry building. The installation uses solar energy to cool down the wholesale outlet during summer and to heat it in winter. With its 3,000 m2 of solar collectors – provided by the Italian Riello Group – this system on the store's roof is one of the biggest in Italy. It reduced the store's energy consumption by 12%, Dominique Minnaert, managing director of METRO Cash & Carry Italy, was quoted saying in the press release.

The system was designed by the British company AP Engineering Services. The chiller, with a power of 700 kW, was provided by the US-American Carrier Corporation, a leader in the areas of heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration systems. The cooling tower came from Evapco Europe, a specialist for industrial and commercial cooling equipment with headquarters in Belgium and Italy. The installation in Rome is part of Metro´s project "Energy Saving Today". Its goal is to optimize performance of storage technology and therefore reduce energy consumption.

I fervently hope that many companies and organisations, not to mention individuals take up this exciting range of technologies.

This article uses some material from my books Solar Technology, and my forthcoming new edition of the Solar Energy Pocket Reference book, to be published by the International Solar Energy Society.