Western Cooling Efficiency Center at UC-Davis Best In Class

Posted on November 24th, 2010 by

Mark Modera, Director of the Western Cooling Efficiency Center at UC-Davis, discusses the different air conditioning solutions that his division is testing.

Full Transcription:

Ben Lack: We’re here with Mark Modera, the Director of the Western Cooling Efficiency Center at UC-Davis.  Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mark Modera: Sure.

Ben Lack: I want you, to start off with, tell us a little bit about the Western Cooling Efficiency Center and how you guys are related to UC-Davis.

Mark Modera: Back in 2007ish, 2006, there’s a group called CALCEF, California Clean Energy Fund, and they put together a contest. And the contest was to create the first university energy efficiency center. So UC Berkley, UC Davis and Stanford all applied, and it turned out that Davis won. And so the cornerstone of their proposal was to create something called the Western Cooling Efficiency Center. And the reason for that is that cooling is sort of a very painful load for electric utilities in the West, painful everywhere but it’s particularly painful in the West.

Ben Lack: Why is that?

Mark Modera: Why, it’s because they sell very few kilowatt hours but have to have a lot of kilowatts ready in order to sell those few. A way that you could look at this the load factor begins with the fraction of time that an air conditioner is on, drawing electricity is 7%. So that means, you can think of a utility having to build a power plant that they only use 7% of the time which clearly is not the best use of resources. That’s for residential. Commercial somewhat better but not a lot better. It may be 10-15% load factor. So cooling is what creates the peak which creates the need for a lot of power at the same time in the same hot afternoon in July or August, and you don’t get much revenue for that. And so therefore cooling is considered “the load from hell.” It’s not a load that anybody wants to have to serve. And anything you can do to reduce that load has a lot of value.

Ben Lack: So the Cooling Efficiency Center was created to really specialize on this issue within this sector?

Mark Modera: That’s correct.

Ben Lack: Okay. And what are some of the projects that you guys work on here?

Mark Modera: Okay. I’m going to step back just a little bit and talk about the fact that what makes, what gives us the opportunity, what makes the load so painful is what creates the opportunity to fix it.  So if you’d like the reason that the load is particularly bad in the West is that in the West you’ve got this big diurnal, or day/night temperature swing. So essentially the temperature outside is cool at night. So the air conditioners turn off. If you go to the East Coast or humid places, the sun might go down but the air stays humid and you still need to run your air conditioners to dehumidify your house, and it doesn’t tend to cool down as much at night either. So that’s what makes the load so difficult. Because it’s dry, that means that, in the West, your load is all if you like sense of a load, no lay load. So it’s the same problem. Just like the diurnal swing, you’ve got the problem with the humidity is not creating a baseline load. Right, there’s not load of cooling required to get water out of the air. So it all cycles together with the air temperature and time of day. End result is the opportunities you have is you can use other technologies that cannot be used in other parts of the country to deal with the cooling problem in the West.

Two that come to mind, and their both somewhat related to the humidity side of things, one is any sort of evaporative cooling. So evaporative cooling means somewhere where you evaporate water, and anybody, in your own personal experience, knows that if you evaporate, when you sweat, if you’re wet, and you blow air over it, it will cool your skin. It’s the same kind of process. What you do is you essentially evaporating water and it takes heat to evaporate water, and therefore, that heat needs to come from somewhere, and so it winds up getting cooled. So you can do evaporative cooling in the West.

The other thing you can do in the West, is because it’s dryer, you can do more radiant cooling. And in the case of radiant cooling, that means basically have a cool surface. And the way you get cool is not only the air temperature that makes it cool but the temperature of the surroundings. Think about when you’re standing near a cold window on a winter day or standing in front of a fireplace. The first is radiant cooling and the latter is radiant heating. It doesn’t change the air temperature, but you feel the radiation on your skin. So you can do that in the West more easily because you don’t have to worry as much about the moisture in the air condensing on that cool surface. So there’s two opportunities that we’ve, two of which we’ve been working with. There are a number of others. But, in general, it’s not all about the water, but the humidity is a big part of what creates the opportunities.

Ben Lack: So is the big thing for you guys to establish processes, being a university, the private sector is going to come to you and say, “Hey, we want a third party to validate that our technologies or solutions are working.” So is the big thing for you guys to establish a system within the cooling efficiency system within the Cooling Efficiency Center to be able to say this is how these solutions are performing?

Mark Modera: Yes and no. That’s one of our functions, and the other function, obviously, we’re a university and we have various ideas of our own we’d like to pursue. But, perhaps different from sort of the main paradigm for universities, we’re more than happy to deal with other people’s technologies. So essentially there’s some homegrown ideas. There’s some ideas that come from the outside world, and we try to find what’s best and do what we can to move the needle. So, in other words, if all our ideas are best, great. If someone else have ideas that work, that’s just fine too. A lot of times they need some credibility. A lot of times they needs some analysis to really know what they do or do not have.

Ben Lack: So you’re kind of being an outsource technical group in that sense?

Mark Modera: To some extent, yes. And part of the role of any research group is, if you sort of do the research and you throw it over the fence and assume somebody’s going to pick it up and run with it, it’s a very slow ponderous process, takes a very long time for anything to happen. So my background, I’ve actually done a startup company on my own, and I know what it’s like to have to deal with every aspect of any sort of “revolutionary technology.” Anything you want to do to change the way things happen, you have to deal with all aspects of it. And as a university, we work with both the technology side of it, but also the policy side of it. And also, if you like, the codes and standards. If you like, some way to create a level playing field for people to be able to say, in a sense, good thing it’s almost like Consumer Reports Efficiency Technologies. And it’s not only the, sort of acting as the referee but creating how to referee it.

Ben Lack: That’s a great segue into what I wanted to ask next which was I know that you guys have a special contest that you guys use with other companies. Can you talk a little bit about the venture?

Mark Modera: Oh, sure. One of the initiatives that we had was something called the Western Cooling Challenge. And for those of you who are not familiar with sort of how it works, and that is that the efficiency of various types of cooling equipment is regulated by federal standards below a certain size.  So residential equipment as well as light commercial equipment, smaller than 65,000 BTUs per hour which is about, that would a large residential system or a relatively small commercial system. Anyway, those systems have rules for what efficiency they need to maintain, and those are based upon national criteria. And one of the issues with it being in the West is because you can do this at operation and you could actually combine that at operation with standard cooling equipment. You could actually much higher efficiencies in those values.

So our contest was set up, in order to create an incentive for manufacturers to create products geared towards the western market.

Ben Lack: Interesting.

Mark Modera: So the way we’re looking at that is we said, “Okay,  you can set the bar wherever you want. But if you set the bar too high, it requires someone to do a complete ground-up redesign which will pretty much limit the major manufacture participation.  So what we did is we setup the contest at a way the major manufacturer could enter the contest without having to do a ground-up redesign but knowing full-well that if you did do a ground-up redesign which small manufacturer can, you can actually beat our target quite significantly. End results, we started this in 2008, over that time we’ve worked with a number of manufacturers. With the first entry was one from a company called Coolerado. And what it was was a ground-up redesign, and this particular product wound up that its energy performance, at least according to the laboratory test, we’ll now doing field tests to verify sort of what happens in actual application, but it was in a 2.1 laboratory test, suggest a 66% reduction in energy use and a 66% reduction in peak electricity demand associated with using that unit in the western climate.

Ben Lack: Big savings.

Mark Modera: Uh, yes. Now the standard, the contest itself, the Western Cooling Challenge, the specs come out lower than that. In other word, you have to do 45% or 50% better. We didn’t quote it that way. That’s just where it turns out to be. What that means is that major manufacturers can and a few of them are planning to as I understand it submit entries that will be a combination of some evaporative improvement to their existing high efficiency equipment to produce something to meet those saving targets.

One of the questions you didn’t ask which I will answer anyway is why would anybody do it. In other words, you have the contest so why does anybody come? And what we did is we worked in our center, we tried, as I said, we want to try to move the needle sort of to create partnerships to do so. So we worked with utilities. We work with end-customers, and we work with manufacturers. So the idea with the end customers — we work with Walmart and Target are two of our affiliates —  we work with them to sort of find out what are the criteria for them to want to buy from the Western Cooling Challenge equipment. We work with the utilities to find intentives for doing this. Now another’s an incentive for the customer to spend more money on a piece of equipment in order to save both energy and peak demand. And as it stands right now so far, people are showing up which is good.

Ben Lack: That is good.

Mark Modera: There have been things like this in the past. There was a golden carrot and I think it was called SERP for refrigerators,  Super Efficient Refrigerator… I don’t know exactly now. But the upside is at one point there was a million dollar prize for manufacturers to produce a more efficient refrigerator. Well, we didn’t have a million dollars, but we had other incentives for people to participate. That’s correct.

Ben Lack: So I’m curious to know, you come from the engineering side of things, why are you doing what you’re doing? Why does this industry interest you so much, and why are you here?

Mark Modera: Um, well, I would say, I guess I like to win, and I like to see things happen. And in order to do that, you can’t just sort of count on just sort doing engineering and assume somebody else will take care of all that other stuff. It has to happen to do anything. So in terms of a fit, the WCEC was chance to sort of do something that I want to do in an environment where I’ve got quite a bit flexibility. And so third-party credibility where you’re no longer sort of selling a product, but you’re trying to  make something happen sort of not with financial gain in mind. And I think it provides a service to all those companies that are trying to produce energy efficient technologies, but their credibility is obviously limited by the fact that they’re selling a product.

Ben Lack: Interesting.

Mark Modera: And so I get to sort of play on the entrepreneurial side but maintain the credibility because of not having a financial interest in those particular entrepreneurial adventures.

Ben Lack: Cool. Is there anything else that you want to say to the audience?

Mark Modera: Um, I could talk forever but basically the next initiative which sort of, I think the Cooling Challenge is great but one of the issues is that the Cooling Challenge is for a certain market segment, particularly it’s replacement or new construction of rooftop package units. And rooftop package units, if you look behind the parapet wall on a small commercial building, there’s a bunch of little boxes sitting up there. And those boxes are called rooftop units or RGUs.

One of the issues – and it’s not necessarily a bad issue – is that those boxes, particularly in western climates, last quite a long time. Fifteen, twenty years. And so if you want to have impact on energy performance now, it’s limited by the fact that you have to wait for those to burn out in order to put a new on. So our next initiative is to look at an RGU retrofit initiative or a way to try to take some of the attributes that are being applied in Western Cooling Challenge and do them on a retrofit basis to existing equipment and perhaps a couple of other unique opportunities like that to essentially improve the performance of those units where they have 10 more years of useful life, and so why not have them work more efficiently during that time period as long as it pays off in a shorter period which looks like it will.

Ben Lack: And you’ll still use some of your own ideas that your groups…

Mark Modera: We’ve got our own ideas. We’ve got other people’s ideas. That’s correct. And part of what we do also is try to do some of the – how do you say? – background research or research that maybe doesn’t have as much of an immediate impact in efficiency, but it’s important. You can think of it as enabling. So in other words, one of the issues with all the evaporative technologies is that if you use them in an area where it’s dry, a lot of times that dry area takes well water. And so with that well water, you’ve got hardness minerals that have to be dealt with. And so what we’re doing is we’re doing the research needed to understand the trade off between use of water and perhaps even treatment of water as a way to have your energy savings not be paid for in the way of excess water use.

Ben Lack: Interesting. Yeah, I didn’t even think about how water can play a factor into cooling side.

Mark Modera: Well, if you’re evaporating water then you’ve got on-site water use. So we’ve got research projects ranging from evaluating different technologies, non-chemical treatment technologies for water so as to reduce how much water has to be used for maintenance in an evaporative piece of equipment to looking at ways to reuse gray water and reuse gray water in your evaporative cooling. In other words, your standards for what you’re going to drink are different from your standards from what you’re willing to evaporate in your air conditioner.

Ben Lack: Sure. Sounds like you all are doing some pretty cool stuff.

Mark Modera: Well, we try to.

Ben Lack: Yeah. Well, thanks so much for giving us some time that I really appreciate it and let’s definitely stay in touch.

Mark Modera: Sounds great.

Ben Lack: Talk to you soon.

Mark Modera: Thanks.

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