A cooler X-Prize

At the beginning of June, the Western Cooling Efficiency Center at UC Davis announced the Western Cooling Challenge, a more modest version of the X-Prize which challenged industry to “slash electricity use by rooftop air conditioners in the western United States by more than 40 percent.”  Yesterday the first winner was announced.

The first certified winner of the UC Davis “Western Cooling Challenge”
is Coolerado Corp. of Denver. Recent federal tests showed that their
five-ton commercial rooftop unit should be able to air-condition a
typical big-box store with less than half the energy needed by
conventional cooling units. (UC Davis Challenge Produces a Better Air Conditioner)

Cooleradoc60 The target was a 40 percent reduction in energy use and peak
electricity demand compared to conventional cooling units. According to Director Mark Modera, tests indicated that the
Coolerado H-80 provides “almost 80 percent energy-use savings and
over 60 percent peak-demand reduction.”

Sure, it’s not developing the first spacecraft
capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers above the earth’s
surface (twice within two weeks).  But the energy revolution—like all technology revolutions before it—won’t come from one giant leap. It will come from many small steps.

Rooftop conditioning is not as glamorous as space flight, it’s just an inextricable part of our daily lives: “Commercial rooftop air-conditioning units are used to cool 70 percent
of the floor area in nonresidential buildings in the western U.S.” Seeing as space conditioning is roughly one-third of the end-use energy consumed in commercial buildings, this is a sizable problem.

I have written before about the difference between moonshots and innovations in energy, and this is a great example of how change can happen.  Not because Coolerado has a great product, but because the Western Cooling Challenge could pull together the right network to make this technological leap and, at the same time, make the next one easier too.

Creating breakthrough energy technologies requires pulling together the variety of players that, in an old and established industry like space-conditioning, need to come together in support of a change.  Here’s the list of collaborators that the Western Cooling Efficiency Center pulled together:

    • Cooling system manufacturers will invest in developing new
      technologies and bringing them into production. (Partners already
      affiliated with the Western Cooling Efficiency Center include large
      industry leaders Trane, Lennox and Munters, as well as smaller firms
      with innovative technologies.)
  • Building owners and operators will provide a market for
    technologies developed for the Western Cooling Challenge. (Partners
    already affiliated with the Western Cooling Efficiency Center include
    industry leaders Wal-Mart and Target. The center also works closely
    with the California Department of General Services, which manages many
    state buildings in California.)
  • Electric utilities offer financial incentives to
    building owners and operators who adopt efficiency technologies.
    (Energy partners who have already committed to providing incentives for
    Western Cooling Challenge technologies include industry leaders
    Southern California Edison, the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., and the
    Sacramento Municipal Utility District.)
  • Energy regulators approve energy-efficiency programs
    proposed by utilities. (The California Public Utilities Commission has
    already set public energy-savings targets through their “Big Bold
    Initiative.” The Western Cooling Efficiency Center has incorporated the
    Big Bold Initiative into the Western Cooling Challenge goals.)
  • Universities and other public institutions provide
    unbiased technical support. (Partners who have already committed to
    supporting the Western Cooling Challenge include the U.S. Department of
    Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the California
    Energy Commission, as well as the UC Davis Western Cooling Efficiency
    Center, the challenge facilitator.)
  • Other nonprofit organizations that focus on energy
    efficiency. (Those that have committed to supporting the Western
    Cooling Challenge include the American Council for an Energy-Efficient
    Economy; the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project; the Northwest Energy
    Efficiency Alliance; the Retailer Energy Alliance; the Natural
    Resources Defense Council; and the New Buildings Institute.)

By bringing together the networks of collaborators whose support is critical, innovators focused on developing the next technologies can easily find, partner, and work with the major players in the industry.  Together, and around a common goal, they can (and this is the hard step) commit their support to turning these innovations into inextricable parts of our daily lives.