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How solar-powered air conditioning works

It uses electricity generated from sunlight to cool your home

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Written by Brian Church
Edited by Cassidy McCants

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    solar panels and air conditioning on roo

    In the summer, both air conditioning demand and solar energy generation are at their peak — so what happens when you pair the two?

    As Gavin Harper, a research fellow at the University of Birmingham who works with renewable energy, put it: “Any electrical load can be run from solar power, and in the case of air conditioning, there is actually a fairly cogent case for using solar power to run air conditioning units.”

    It might sound counterintuitive, but the sun can actually cool your house down pretty effectively. Solar-powered AC comes with several benefits in terms of cost and energy savings. If you’re thinking of switching to solar cooling, read on to see how the most popular technologies on the market work.


    Key insights

    • Heating and air conditioning make up more than half of residential energy use.
    • Solar energy systems can offset an entire home’s electricity consumption.
    • The cost of solar-powered air conditioning is highly variable, depending on what you’re looking for.

    Benefits of solar-powered air conditioning

    Like most other solar energy products, solar-powered air conditioning can minimize your electricity bills and lessen your toll on the environment.

    Green power: Grid-powered air conditioners create 117 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Because every kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by a solar energy system is emission-free, running your AC with solar power is a pretty effective way to go green at home.

    Cost savings: If running your AC is driving up your utility bills, a solar energy system may save you money. Air conditioners use approximately 6% of all electricity produced in the U.S., costing homeowners about $29 billion per year altogether, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. You could save significant money on your utility bills, even if you only generate enough electricity to cover your air conditioning usage.

    Types of solar-powered air conditioning

    To make sure you invest in the right kind of system, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the two main ways of capturing solar power for air conditioning: thermal systems and solar panel systems.

    If you want to cool your house with green energy, you have two main options for collecting solar power: a thermal system or a PV system.

    Solar thermal systems

    Solar thermal systems, also called solar water heaters, harness the sun’s heat rather than the actual photons in sunlight. Thermal systems use this heat to power the refrigeration process in an air conditioner or chiller, cooling your home in the process.

    Solar panel systems

    Solar panel systems contain photovoltaic (PV) cells that convert sunlight into electricity, which you can use to cool your home and operate other devices. Whether you’re using a window unit, an electric swamp cooler or a full-home HVAC system, solar panel systems can help offset your reliance on utility power.

    Solar panel systems are generally more versatile than thermal systems, and their energy can be stored in batteries for overnight use.

    What’s the average solar air conditioner price?

    The cost of solar-powered air conditioning really depends on what you’re looking for. Your options range from window units helped along by just a few solar panels to central air conditioning systems with solar arrays large enough to power your whole home. That means switching to solar-powered air conditioning could cost you anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.

    Installing a solar energy system is expensive upfront, but making this switch should pay for itself over time.

    Solar panels can be pretty expensive, even without an air conditioner included, and you want to make sure your solar energy system can handle your AC unit — that is, you’ll need enough panels or thermal collectors with enough capacity to power your cooling system.

    “Given the capital purchase cost of solar panels … it makes a great deal of sense to investigate all of the measures that can be used to passively cool a building first,” Harper said.

    By implementing passive solar home design to increase the energy efficiency of your home, you can save significantly on the actual amount of power it takes to run an air conditioner (traditional or solar).

    Just remember that, unlike traditional cooling systems, solar AC is designed to essentially pay for itself over time.

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      FAQ

      How much solar power do you need to run AC?

      Although the amount of solar power you need to run an AC unit varies based on building size and other factors, Harper said a good rule of thumb is that “a split-unit type of air conditioning system will require 80 watts per meter square of building space” that’s being cooled.

      For an average home running AC five to six months per year, a 4-kilowatt solar system should provide enough power during the summer to offset AC usage.

      Can you run an RV air conditioner with solar power?

      You can run an RV air conditioner with solar power as long as your solar power system is large enough to generate as much energy as you use and your RV is exposed to enough sunlight.

      How many batteries will I need to run a solar air conditioner?

      The number of batteries you’ll need to run a solar air conditioner depends on how much square footage you want to cool, how often you run your AC and how hot it is outside.

      You may not need any batteries if you only want to run your air conditioner while the sun is out. However, if you want consistent cooling, especially overnight or on days without sun exposure, you’ll either need to connect to a power grid or buy and fill enough batteries to bridge the gaps when you’re not collecting solar energy.

      Bottom line

      You might see people use the term “solar-powered air conditioner” to refer to any interior cooling system that runs on power generated from the sun, so there’s a lot of variability in what these systems look like.

      While there are some small- and large-scale applications for independent solar-powered cooling systems, pairing whole-home solar energy systems with traditional air conditioners may be the easiest way for you to implement the cost-saving and environmental benefits of solar-powered climate control.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. To learn more about the content on our site, visit our FAQ page.
      1. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “Energy use in homes.” Accessed June 9, 2022.
      2. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), “Homeowner's Guide to Going Solar.” Accessed June 9, 2022.
      3. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE), “Air Conditioning.” Accessed June 9, 2022.
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