Solar Cooling: The Next Frontier for Distributed Generation?

Earlier this month, U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman Jon Wellinghoff hailed distributed generation an unstoppable trend in power generation, noting that more than 40 percent of all new generation since June was from renewables, much of that distributed.

A significant portion of new distributed (or customer-side) generation is from solar photovoltaic (PV), which has expanded more quickly than most expected due largely to the declining cost of PV modules as well as increased competition, which have made installation more economically feasible for home and business owners. In fact, solar PV is one of the reasons California is on track to not only meet but exceed its goal of deriving 33 percent of the state’s power from renewable sources by 2020 – a goal once thought of as extremely ambitious and potentially unattainable.

Solar PV is not the only way to harness the sun’s energy to meet energy and environmental goals, however. This past August, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report which found that solar thermal technology could meet one-sixth of the world’s heating and cooling demands, saving 800 megatons of carbon dioxide emissions a year by 2050. What’s more, solar cooling could help avoid the need for new transmission capacity, saving energy consumers money and making our electric systems more sustainable.

Solar thermal can be used more efficiently than solar PV to power large, energy-intensive devices such as commercial air conditioners. This emerging technology uses the sun’s rays and vapor absorption technology (as compared to the vapor compression technology used by traditional air conditioners) to produce the necessary cooling power. Given traditional air conditioners demand an enormous amount of electricity, and generally at the hottest part of the day when solar power is most abundant, advances in this technology could significantly reduce energy demand and improve our environment.

The installation of commercial-scale solar thermal cooling systems is already underway. My company, Flareum Technologies, for example, recently completed installation of a solar-powered air conditioning system to provide cooling power to the Bangalore offices of Siemens Technologies. This system produces 200 kWh of cooling power while reducing the carbon footprint of the office by 30,000 tons of emissions annually and saving Siemens more than $12,000 annually in cooling costs.

We are now looking at how best to bring this technology to commercial and residential customers in other countries such as the United States. When you consider the amount of energy used to cool large data centers in California’s Silicon Valley, for example, the energy and costs savings potential of solar cooling is enormous.

While solar PV was perhaps the clean technology that made the greatest stride in the first decade of the 21st century, I believe solar thermal technology is poised to make the greatest leap forward in the second decade of the century. At Flareum, we’re excited to be part of its progress.

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Badal Shah, managing director and CEO of Flareum Technologies, has more than a decade of experience in clean energy. His career in the clean tech sector began in 1997 when he formed Reality Energy Limited, a solar energy company based in Mumbai. He joined the Oxford Office of Ecosecurities in 2000 and later worked as a consultant for the Clean Air Capital Fund in London. In 2005, he founded Enion Management Ltd., which provides consulting services related to climate change, green buildings and renewable energy. Two years later, he invested in several clean tech startup companies, including Flareum Technologies.Mr. Shah has received numerous awards for his leadership in the clean tech field, including Outstanding Entrepreneurship in Alternate Energy from the Mayor of Los Angeles in 2010.He has spoken at many conferences including RENEWTECH India 2011, where he served as session chairman. He has also served as a delegate for the UK’s Climate Change Project Office (CCPO) Trading Mission to numerous countries.Mr. Shah holds a Master of Science in environmental science specializing in climate change policies.

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