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Super air conditioners: big chill on energy waste

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Air-conditioning efficiency has been improving steadily since the 1970s energy crisis focused attention on power consumption. Homes are far more efficient and better insulated - and heating and cooling machinery is far more efficient. But more homes have air conditioning, and new homes are bigger - negating the gains made by more efficient equipment.

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"We've had this situation where air- conditioning equipment has been getting more efficient, yet new homes are getting bigger - everything is supersized - so the result is you have more area to cool," says Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a Boston-based organization supported by a coalition of environmental and consumer groups, states, and utilities.

Power use for home air conditioning had been projected to rise 13 percent between 2002 and 2025 - without the new standards. That's modest compared with faster growing residential uses like personal computers, cell phone chargers, and other standby power energy "vampires," as President Bush has called them.

Yet because of its impact on peak power, growing demand for air conditioning is scarier than energy vampires and so must be kept under control, says Jonathan Koomey, a Lawrence Berkeley scientist who analyzes residential power use.

"It's true that power demand for residential cooling is growing at a moderate pace," he says. "But it's also true that air conditioning will be proportionally more important than other end uses because of the sort of impact it has on peak power demand."

By implementing the new standards, the nation would cut peak electric demand by 41,500 megawatts by 2020 and carbon emissions by some 7 million metric tons per year, according to an analysis by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in Washington, an energy watchdog. That peak demand equals 83 500-megawatt power plants.

The standards are also projected to save consumers $3.4 billion on their electricity bills through 2020, the group says.

"These new standards for air conditioners represent a huge improvement in efficiency, with a lot of savings for consumers and less air pollution," says Steve Nadel, ACEEE executive director. "We're talking a big improvement in efficiency - and that's going to have a major impact."

Some manufacturers have been steadily pushing the technological envelope on efficient air conditioners for some time.

Sitting in his perfectly chilled office in steamy Tyler, Texas, Greg Walters spends a lot of time pondering cool ideas like: What's the most energy-efficient air conditioner my company can build?

Over a recent two-year period, Mr. Walters led an elite product-development team at Trane, a major air-conditioner manufacturer, in hot pursuit of the holy grail of air conditioners - a central-air unit for homes that would be 100 percent more energy efficient than anything the DOE currently requires.

Not surprisingly, the resulting Trane XL19i is pricey - a high-tech rocket ship among residential air conditioners that can cost up to 2.5 times a similar conventional unit. Despite its cost, its efficiency makes it popular even in cooler regions like New England, company officials say.

Yet for the nation's Sun Belt and its hottest regions like the Mojave, the XL19i is rated to use up to 95 percent less power than the government's air-conditioning energy standard. It may not be quite like putting a man on the moon, but the marriage of next-generation compressors, heat exchangers, coolant, and motor was plenty tough. "We had to use every resource we had to do it, absolutely," Walters recalls.

So far, the XL19i is selling well, he says. Sales of other manufacturers' super-high-efficiency models are also reportedly strong in the hottest regions of the country - Florida, Georgia, Texas, California - where air conditioners run around the clock. Rival Lennox Industries sells a 19.2 SEER unit. Tim Thorson, the senior product manager for cooling at Lennox, says its new model is selling well - even in Alaska.

"Certain people want not only the most efficient machine, but the one that's best at dealing with humidity and air quality," Mr. Thorson says.

Even in Oconomowoc, Wis., for example, about a third of replacement units are models in the 18 SEER range, says Jason Punzel, service and sales manager at Pat's Heating and Air Conditioning. "It does get pretty warm up here for a couple of months."