Why we had to back Blue Frontier — heating up the cooling space
Blue Frontier raises a $20 million round to address our global cooling problem that is only heating up.
By: Christian Hernandez, Alexandra Perez, Margarita Skarkou
We sit here writing this coming off of the hottest day on record in the United Kingdom where temperatures hit 40.3C (nearly 105F), wildfires raged across Europe and thousands lost their lives due to the unprecedented heat. Temperatures will hit record highs in China and the United States this summer and power consumption to help keep people cool is predicted to hit new peaks.
Unless abated, cooling ourselves has the potential to be one of the greatest destructive forces on our planet. At 2150 we have talked about the importance of Cooling ad nauseum. As Christian told Techcrunch last year: “solving the cooling sustainability challenge had become a mission within the fund “Everybody focuses on heating but cooling consumes more energy and it’s going to grow as more people around the world need to stay cool just to survive, not to just to stay comfortable”
Why is cooling such an (often ignored) issue? Let’s review some headlines:
- Cooling is already responsible for an enormous amount of global emissions: Cooling “accounts for nearly 20% of the total electricity used in buildings around the world” and CO2e emissions from cooling have tripled since 1990 to 1.13 Gt, equivalent to the total emissions of Japan. Fixing the issue of energy efficiency and refrigerants in the hardware that keeps us cool could avoid 460 GtCO2e over the next four decades (IEA).
- Extreme heat events will continue to grow in frequency and people will perish: “Around 30% of the world’s population is currently exposed to a deadly combination of heat and humidity exceeding a deadly threshold for at least 20 days a year. By 2100, this percentage is projected to increase to ∼48% under a scenario with drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and ∼74% under a scenario of growing emissions (Nature Climate).
- Demand for cooling is only increasing, especially in the Global South: AC use is expected to be the second-largest source of global electricity demand growth after the industry sector, and the strongest driver for buildings by 2050. The IEA predicts that global shipments of air conditioning units will grow by 3x by 2050 to 5.6 billion units with over half of those shipping into China and India (IEA).
- Our global energy infrastructure is not ready: The tripling of global energy demand from air conditioners by 2050 will require new electricity capacity equivalent to the combined electricity capacity of the United States, the EU and Japan today (IEA).
As outlined in our UNSUSTAINABLE series, as we educated ourselves on the space we honed in on three concurrent problems
1) Energy efficiency of air conditioners
2) the energy mix and the demand on the grid to power them
3) the refrigerants inside AC units
We, therefore, had to back Florida-based Blue Frontier because it is the only technology we identified that is concurrently addressing all three problems.
The team at Blue Frontier have built a novel commercial air conditioning unit that reduces energy consumption by up to 90%, integrates energy storage without using conventional batteries and massively reduces the use of harmful refrigerants. Because the system’s electricity consumption is flexible and controllable, it addresses the time of use of electricity problems allowing for load shifting from carbon-heavy grid peak times. This flexibility does not affect the operation of the air conditioner itself, keeping building occupants cool and comfortable.
The company, which won the BNEF Pioneers 2022 prize for Disruptive Energy Storage Air Conditioning Technology, is commercializing technology spun out of The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) which uses a liquid desiccant and integrates a chemical energy storage.
The infographic above helps illustrate the BF AC process that combines a desiccant, latent-cooling stage, followed by an indirect evaporative cooling stage.
- Electricity drives a heat pump that generates heat.
- That heat is used to concentrate a liquid desiccant, releasing water.
- The liquid desiccant is stored in an energy storage tank providing several hours of near-zero energy cooling.
- The liquid desiccant generates air conditioning by dehumidifying air and then subjecting it to indirect evaporative cooling.
The efficiency of cooling and heating systems is measured by their “coefficient of performance,” or COP, a ratio of useful heating or cooling provided to energy required. Conventional direct expansion air conditioners typically have a COP in the range of 3 to 3.5, while the COP of the Blue Frontier system ranges from about 11 on the low end to over 50 on the high end, corresponding to energy reductions of 60% and >90% respectively.
Because the system uses the power of water evaporation for cooling, it does not need to use the cold side of the heat pump (the evaporator) for air conditioning. As such, the system is able to put the evaporator in the warm humid exhaust air leaving the regenerator, resulting in high efficiencies no matter the ambient conditions, meaning the Blue Frontier AC unit is suitable for both dry and humid climates (which is not the case with all cooling technologies*). *A major downside to conventional vapor compression air conditioners that are in most of our homes and offices is that their capacity and efficiency plummets on the hottest days — exactly when we need AC the most.
As we looked into Cooling for our deep dive, all roads seemed to lead to Daniel Betts, the founder and CEO of Blue Frontier. When we shared our interest in cooling, our friends at LowerCarbon suggested we speak to him. When we spoke to the former lead of the Global Cooling Prize, he mentioned a startup in Florida we should meet. Our involvement with RMI’s Third Derivative, where Blue Frontier had been selected for their climate tech cohort, led us down the same path.
Daniel has assembled a fantastic team of scientists and cooling technology veterans, many with prior entrepreneurial battle scars. The team’s ultimate combination of hard tech and business know-how and their ability to get into the weeds of physics and engineering and then zoom out to the wider commercial picture is one of the major reasons we are investing in them.
We are proud to be supporting the deployment of this game-changing technology alongside our friends at Breakthrough Energy Ventures, existing investor VoLo Earth Ventures, and Blue Frontier’s manufacturing partner Modern Niagara.
Ironically, or perhaps, rightly, our first board meeting with Blue Frontier fell on the hottest day the UK has ever seen. It felt like a testament to why these investments matter so much and furthered an already enormous sense of urgency to increase awareness, pour capital and rollout innovation in this critical space. As Daniel himself responded during the Board Call “Yes. We have a huge responsibility on our shoulders. Failure is not an option!”
2150 is a venture capital firm investing in technology companies that seek to sustainably reimagine and reshape the urban environment. 2150’s investment thesis focuses on major unsolved problems across what it calls the ‘Urban Stack’, which comprises every element of the built environment, from the way our cities are designed, constructed and powered, to the way people live, work and are cared for. Find out more at www.2150.vc