No one really likes window air conditioners: Yes, they can make a hot day more bearable, but they’re also ugly, noisy, block the view, and contribute to climate change. But the number of air conditioners is poised to surge, both because the planet is getting hotter and a growing number of people in developing countries can finally afford the technology. By 2050, by one prediction, there will be 5.6 billion air conditioners in use, up from roughly 1.6 billion now.
Several companies are trying to find ways to solve the problem. Gradient, a San Francisco-based startup, is designing an alternative that can help tackle the challenges of traditional air conditioners—and that doubles as an efficient heater when it’s cold. When it’s used both for heating and cooling, the device can shrink the carbon footprint of heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) by 75%. As the grid shifts to renewable energy, that footprint could essentially be eliminated completely, so turning on the AC doesn’t have the ironic effect of making future heat waves more likely through global warming.
“We realized that air conditioning is an important public health need,” says Vince Romanin, CEO of Gradient, which spun out of the research and innovation lab Otherlab, a company that studies the energy system in detail and designs new solutions. “And we realized that we’re in kind of a vicious cycle where today’s systems are really high carbon emissions and growing in use. It doesn’t have to be this way—technology exists to make heating and cooling systems that don’t have high carbon emissions. The company’s here to break this cycle, and make products that allow you to be cool and comfortable without heating the planet,” says Romanin.