01/19/16 : Karen Hughes

Chillers in China: Boosting Productivity

Immediately after helping to host a side event at the UNFCCC COP21 negotiations in France, I had the opportunity to travel to China. My timing couldn’t have been more relevant. The week before I arrived in Shanghai, Beijing had issued its first-ever air quality red alert since adopting an emergency air-pollution response system in 2013, shutting down the capital of the world’s most populous country. There was stark contrast between the enormous optimism that suffused the Le Bourget climate negotiating complex, situated just outside of scenic Paris, and the air quality problem facing China.

There is no question that the government in China recognizes the challenges ahead of them. In the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution that China submitted to the UNFCCC in June 2015, China pledged to achieve peak carbon emissions in 2030, in part by increasing support for energy efficiency and boosting non-fossil fuel energy sources to 20 percent of total energy production. China’s energy consumption will continue to grow alongside the economy, but energy efficiency represents an important opportunity for China to mitigate the rate of that growth. In the long run, the more energy consumption that can be satisfied through the application of efficiency technologies and practices, the less costly China’s transition to a lower carbon-intense economy will be.

Corporations in China are making a difference, too. While traveling through the region surrounding Shanghai, I stopped by to tour one of Johnson Controls’ chiller factories in Wuxi. Chillers are the incredibly large, complex machines that are used to cool air and/or machinery in commercial and industrial buildings. These complicated machines use increasingly sophisticated information collection techniques to precisely calibrate temperature controls for maximum resource efficiency management. The particular plant I visited is one of the largest chiller manufacturers in the world, turning out 4,000 industrial chillers every year, ranging in cooling capacity from 80 to 4,000 tons.

Johnson Controls was founded in 1885, two years after the company’s founder Warren Johnson patented the first electric thermostat. That invention made it possible to measure and therefore influence temperatures in the built environment, enabling whole ecosystems of technologies to be developed by companies all over the world. Indeed, the chillers made in Wuxi work hand in hand with Johnson Controls’ Metasys building management systems, which link together information from various electronic systems in a single building to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

Technologically advanced systems like chillers and building management systems are among many efficiency technologies that, when properly managed and maintained, can yield enormous energy and financial savings in the built environment. For a plant or building manager, these benefits are fairly straightforward, and have an immediate impact on the bottom line.

At the national and even international level, it is the incremental application of these technologies and practices that will help to change the face of energy demand and decouple energy growth from economic growth. The goal, of course, is to improve energy productivity around the world by meaningfully investing in energy-efficient technologies and practices; these investments promote economic growth without the costly energy bill that has traditionally gone along with it.