IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group III: Mitigation of Climate Change Passive and low-energy cooling techniques

Purely passive cooling techniques require no mechanical energy input, but can often be greatly enhanced through small amounts of energy to power fans or pumps. A detailed discussion of passive and low-energy cooling techniques can be found in Harvey (2006) and Levermore (2000). Highlights are presented below:

Natural and night-time ventilation

Natural ventilation reduces the need for mechanical cooling by: directly removing warm air when the incoming air is cooler than the outgoing air, reducing the perceived temperature due to the cooling effect of air motion, providing night-time cooling of exposed thermal mass and increasing the acceptable temperature through psychological adaptation when the occupants have control of operable windows. When the outdoor temperature is 30°C, the average preferred temperature in naturally ventilated buildings is 27°C, compared to 25°C in mechanically ventilated buildings (de Dear and Brager, 2002).

Natural ventilation requires a driving force and an adequate number of openings, to produce airflow. Natural ventilation can be induced through pressure differences arising from inside-outside temperature differences or from wind. Design features, both traditional and modern, that create thermal driving forces and/or utilize wind effects include courtyards, atria, wind towers, solar chimneys and operable windows (Holford and Hunt, 2003). In addition to being increasingly employed in commercial buildings in Europe, natural ventilation is starting to be used in multi-story commercial buildings in more temperate climates in North America (McConahey et al., 2002). Natural ventilation can be supplemented with mechanical ventilation as needed.

In climates with a minimum diurnal temperature variation of 5°C to 7°C, natural or mechanically assisted night-time ventilation, in combination with exposed thermal mass, can be very effective in reducing daily temperature peaks and, in some cases, eliminating the need for cooling altogether. Simulations carried out in California indicate that night-time ventilation is sufficient to prevent peak indoor temperatures from exceeding 26°C over 43% of California in houses with an improved envelope and modestly greater thermal mass compared to standard practice (Springer et al., 2000). For Beijing, da Graça et al. (2002) found that thermally and wind-driven night-time ventilation could eliminate the need for air conditioning of a six-unit apartment building during most of the summer if the high risk of condensation during the day due to moist outdoor air coming into contact with the night-cooled indoor surfaces could be reduced.

Evaporative cooling

There are two methods of evaporatively cooling the air supplied to buildings. In a ‘direct’ evaporative cooler, water evaporates directly into the air stream to be cooled. In an ‘indirect’ evaporative cooler, water evaporates into and cools a secondary air stream, which cools the supply air through a heat exchanger without adding moisture. By appropriately combining direct and indirect systems, evaporative cooling can provide comfortable conditions most of the time in most parts of the world.

Subject to availability of water, direct evaporative cooling can be used in arid areas; indirect evaporative cooling extends the region of applicability to somewhat more humid climates. A new indirect-direct evaporative cooler in the development phase indicated savings in annual cooling energy use of 92 to 95% for residences and 89 to 91% for a modular school classroom in simulations for a variety of California climate zones (DEG, 2004).

Other passive cooling techniques

Underground earth-pipe cooling consists of cooling ventilation air by drawing outside air through a buried air duct. Good performance depends on the climate having a substantial annual temperature range. Desiccant dehumidification and cooling involves using a material (desiccant) that removes moisture from air and is regenerated using heat. Solid desiccants are a commercially available technology. The energy used for dehumidification can be reduced by 30 to 50% compared to a conventional overcooling/reheat scheme (50 to 75% savings of conventional sources if solar energy is used to regenerate the desiccant) (Fischer et al., 2002; Niu et al., 2002). In hot-humid climates, desiccant systems can be combined with indirect evaporative cooling, providing an alternative to refrigeration-based air conditioning systems (Belding and Delmas, 1997).