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Revista ingeniería de construcción

versión On-line ISSN 0718-5073

Rev. ing. constr. vol.33 no.2 Santiago ago. 2018 


Solar cooling in buildings. .A state of the art

D. Bravo*  1  

F. González** 

J. González* 

*Research Management Learning (RML), Quito, Ecuador

** Universidad Autónoma de Occidente, Cali, Colombia



The use of solar energy, rather than an alternative, is the viable solution to the energy demands of our planet for sustainable development. Given the population increase and quality of life on a global scale, it is very reasonable to forecast an increase in global energy demand. In this context, refrigeration or solar heating systems are a viable and timely strategy to follow.


This work offers a state of the art on the different methods of obtaining solar cold. The review is generated using the tools offered by the Scopus directory and using the VOSviewer bibliometric analysis software.


The solar thermal cooling of buildings is shown as a trend within these energy practices, followed by photovoltaic solar cooling. United States of America, Italy and China are the nations that today lead this field. The most fertile research areas in this subject are engineering, energy and materials science.


The next few years will be decisive for the development of solar cooling technologies, since they depend on the stimulus and promotion plans offered by those responsible for formulating environmental and energy efficiency policies for buildings.

Keywords: Renewable energy source; photovoltaic solar cooling; thermoelectric solar cooling; thermo-mechanical solar cooling; solar thermal cooling.


The global warming occurs when carbon dioxide, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) and other gasses, such as methane and nitrous oxide, is accumulated in the lower atmosphere (Gibon et al. 2017); (Sun et al. 2018); (Worsoe-Schmidt 1980).

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), which are widely used in cooling and heating, are gasses that have a strong negative impact on the ozone layer. As a result of the rapid growth of the global population, the total consumption of energy and heating and cooling has increased. It is expected that the polluting emissions to the environment increase by 71 % from 2003 to 2030 (Antoci et al. 2018); (Hwang et al. 2008).

The main consumption of electric power in non-industrial buildings is associated with cooling and heating of spaces. This consumption can range from 40% to 60%, depending on the geographical position of the installation, its structure and its purpose (Ahmadzadehtalatapeh 2018); (Jing et al 2018). Hence, the use of solar energy in cooling installations is an alternative to conventional cold generation techniques. An alternative that contributes to alleviating environmental pollution problems and decreasing the demand for electric power associated with the benefits of artificial heating and cooling. In addition, the advantage is that the peak hours of operation of the buildings generally match the hours of sunlight availability (Bravo Hidalgo 2015b); (Valladares-Rendón et al. 2017).

The weather conditions in the Central American and the Caribbean region, with an average temperature of 260C and sustained temperatures over long periods of time during the summer above 320C, require the use of air conditioning systems to meet the thermal control conditions (Lara et al. 2015).

Solar heating and cooling stand out as a timely and feasible solution to the global environmental and energy situation, for the following reasons: it represents significant savings in primary energy consumption and a reduction of CO2 emissions. Solar heating and cooling do not work with environmentally hazardous refrigerants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFC). Noises and vibrations are reduced compared to the mechanical refrigerant vapor compression technologies (Díaz Torreset al. 2015); (Nkwetta & Sandercock 2016).

The present article shows an analysis of the most researched solar-powered cooling technologies and the future trends. Hence, it is based on a literature review of the most cited documents in this area of knowledge.

Materials and methods.

The present article is based on literature research on solar-powered cooling technologies. It is developed by using the tools offered by the Scopus directory since this directory represents many journals of greater impact and visibility that project the results in research and advances in this type of energy practice. Furthermore, the VOSviewer analysis and bibliometric mapping tool is used. This software was used for:

Creating maps based on network data.

Visualizing and exploring maps.

The data collected from the Scopus academic directory were exported as CSV files, in order to be processed in the aforementioned bibliometric analysis tool.

The exploration analyzes works from 2013 to February 16, 2018, under the search criterion of solar cooling in buildings, which was applied to the title, the abstract and the keywords of the contributions. The search showed a total of 1,873 related articles and 18,069 registered patents in the aforementioned period. From this search, the contributions with a higher Hirsch index (H Index) were selected. These specifically referred to the solar cooling technologies, such as photovoltaic solar cooling systems, thermoelectric solar cooling, thermo-mechanical solar cooling, and solar thermal cooling techniques.


Research related to solar cooling in buildings showed a strong growth in recent decades. As shown in Figure 1, the trend curve displayed presents growth since the engineers and researchers see in the solar cooling technology a fertile way to reach the conditions of thermal comfort in indoor areas through the use of clean and abundant energy. It is important to mention that in order to obtain this chart, a period from 1995 to 2017 was considered. The aforementioned search criterion was used as well as the other conditions mentioned in the Methods section of this study.

Figure 1 Behavior of the number of investigations related to solar cooling in buildings in recent decades. 

So far, the research areas showing more results in this subject area are engineering and energy. As shown in Figure 2, this is a consequence of the strong presence of solar-powered heating and cooling technologies in industrial, residential and commercial buildings. The areas of research shown in this chart were detected in the Scopus directory and under the search criteria and conditions set out in the Methods section.

Figure 2 Number of contributions as per areas of research in solar cooling in buildings 

The author with more contributions in this subject area is Anna Laura Pisello, professor of University of Perugia, Italy, with a total of 25 works in journals registered in the scientific directory under analysis.

The last state of the art article written with regard to this subject was (Kim et al 2008), which aims at a review of the state of the art of the different technologies available in that moment to provide cooling from solar energy. The main results of this research highlight that the photovoltaic and thermo-mechanical systems are more expensive than the absorption and adsorption systems. Likewise, these last two are comparable in terms of performance, but the adsorption coolers are more expensive and larger than absorption coolers.

Research on solar cooling in buildings in the directory under analysis is led by a group of authors who are related as shown in Figure 3. This figure was generated through the VOSviever software. There is evidence of the existence of two focal points. To the left of the chart, there is a greater number of authors mainly from Asian countries, while to the right of the chart the relationship between authors mostly from Europe and the United States of America is shown. It can be seen that there is little connection between these research groups and the widespread interest among the different Asian authors in this subject matter.

Figure 3 Correlation network among the authors with the greatest impact on the research of solar-powered cooling for buildings 

Figure 4 was generated through the VOSviewer software. This figure shows the relationship between the nations with more findings presented in investigations on the subject matter. The United States, Italy, and China are the leading nations. Noticeably, the world economic powers see in solar cooling in buildings an effective, safe and practical alternative.

Figure 4 Nationwide research interaction network of solar cooling in buildings 

Figure 5 was obtained through the aforementioned software. This figure shows a map of terms related to the field of solar powered cooling in buildings. The colors show the density of the terms that delimit the investigations on solar cooling in buildings. They go from blue (the lowest density) to red (the highest density). The bottom right side of the chart shows that the terms building envelope, thermal performance, and thermal comfort represent a group of terms strongly related to the investigations in the field of solar cooling in buildings.

Figure 5 Map of terms in the field of active solar cooling in buildings. 

Table 1 shows a summary of the most cited investigations by solar-powered cooling technologies. This table shows the general objectives of these investigations and their main findings, as well as their number of quotations and their H index.

Table 1 Summary of the most cited investigations as per cooling technologies 

Considering the dependence of solar energy production on time and weather conditions, the successful use of all these cooling systems depends to a large extent on the capacity on the accumulation system or energy storage used (Bravo Hidalgo at al. 2017). Table 2 shows the different technologies of the solar heating or cooling with energy storage (Chidambaram at al. 2011).

Table 2 Solar cooling systems. 

*Note: The use of photovoltaic solar energy in air conditioning handles energy storage technologies through different types of alternating current batteries. These vary in shape, size and composition material according to the storage capacity for which they are designed.

In comparison with conventional systems of mechanical refrigerant vapor compression, an important saving of electrical power can be expected from solar cooling systems. Thus, the energy demand for heating and cooling is lower. Therefore, the ecological footprint of these processes is reduced (Bravo Hidalgo 2015a).

Solar cooling can be achieved through four basic methods: photovoltaic solar cooling, thermoelectric solar cooling, thermo-mechanical solar cooling, and solar thermal cooling. The first method consists in a solar energy collection system using photovoltaic panels, in which solar energy is converted into electric power which is used to run the electric motors of the systems of mechanical refrigerant vapor compression (Chen 2017); (Florides 2002). The second method consists of the cold production through thermoelectric processes (Zhao & Tan 2014). The third method is comprised of a system where the thermal energy is converted into mechanical energy. Then, the mechanical energy is used to produce the cooling effect (Papadopoulos et al. 2003). The fourth method consists in the activation of a thermal compression system, where a solar collector directly heats a working fluid running the generator of an absorption machine, thus causing the refrigerant effect (Díaz Torres et al. 2015); (Sun et al. 2017); (Thirugnanasambandam at al. 2010). The performance of cooling systems is determined based on the energy indicators of these systems. The coefficient of performance (COP ) can be calculated as follows as expressed in the equation 1 (Arora 2010):


Eu is the cooling effect obtained, Ec is the energy consumed by the system to achieve such an effect.

Contributions in the different solar powered cooling technologies

Figure 7 shows the behavior of the contributions of each of these solar powered cooling technologies in the Scopus directory. There is a noticeable trend towards the increase in research related to solar thermal cooling in the last decade, followed by a modest takeoff in the research of photovoltaic solar cooling. The most recurrent topics treated in the different solar powered cooling technologies are modeling and efficiency optimization, investigations on working fluids and optimization of operating costs (Fan et al. 2007); (Haller et al., 2012).

Figure 7 Number of publications as per different solar powered cooling technologies 


Although these solar cooling technologies are considered mature, they have a discreet representation at a global level. This is due to a group of barriers or limitations that have slowed down, and are holding back, the establishment of these technologies in the market of cooling of spaces. The main limitations are described as follows:

Currently, solar-powered cooling systems are more expensive if we compare them with the prices of conventional chillers. This condition is more pronounced in the case of low power chillers, commonly used in houses and small shopping centers.

The use of solar thermal powered chillers generally requires cooling towers. These items are subject to specific legislation in order to prevent the possibility of dangerous Legionella bacteria from emerging in the ducts. Apart from that, the maintenance of the cooling towers is relatively expensive.

Currently, the existing market for machines with low cooling capacities is very limited (Ajib 2010).

Tax reduction and other financial incentives for the development of solar cooling are limited and insufficient to promote this technology.

A guide for solar-powered cooling systems is necessary at the government level. These installations are often forgotten in the financial incentive schemes not only for producers but also for consumers. The financial incentives must be aimed at mitigating the high initial costs of this type of investments (Bravo Hidalgo 2015a); (Mokheimer et al 2017).

Despite the fact that adopting solar technology is recognized as a realistic response to the energy and environmental problems calling the attention of engineers and architects, the economic assessments are often unfavorable. The critical factors that will ensure the extension of solar cooling systems are the technological maturity and the improvement of their economic viability.

The economic analyses of the solar cooling systems show that these systems will not be competitive compared to the conventional cooling systems taking into account the current price of electricity.

There are 156.325 more licenses related to conventional cooling than those related to solar cooling. There is an urgent need of incentives for the investment and the setting of taxes that reflect the total environmental cost of conventional fuels in order to overcome the constraints to the development of sun-powered cooling technology. The works of (Boopathi et al. 2012); (Dickinson et al. 2010); (Testi et al. 2016) highlight the costs of implementing and using this type of technologies, even making comparisons between them.

With regard to the future direction of solar cooling development, a focus on low-temperature sorption systems will be convenient. This is because, first of all, the cost of a solar collector system tends to increase faster with working temperature than the Coefficient of Operation (COP) of a sorption machine. And secondly, high-temperature chillers will not be compatible with the solar collection systems originally designed to produce domestic hot water that are very common in houses, schools, shopping centers, etc. Figure 8 of the publication of (Kim et al. 2008); (Linjawi et al. 2017) sets costs according to operating powers and activation temperatures of these thermal machines that support the above.

Solar cooling systems can be used either as stand-alone systems or with systems integrated with conventional techniques for obtaining cold in order to improve the indoor air quality of several types of buildings. Along with the photovoltaic systems, solar thermal powered cooling systems are increasingly being used in various regions, with a trend towards an increase in these practices. (Hashe 2017); (Van Straaten 1977); (Worsoe-Schmidt 1980.)

Finally, it is important to mention that the solar cooling systems are more environmentally friendly both in the production period and in the operation period than the conventional cooling systems because of the use of unpolluted working fluids, such as lithium bromide, water and ammonia instead of chlorofluorocarbons (Toppi et al. 2016); (Weberet al. 2014).


The final considerations of the investigation put forward conclusively are detailed as follows:

The investigations related to solar cooling present a growing trend since the engineers and researchers see in the solar cooling technology a fertile path to achieving the thermal comfort conditions in interior spaces, through the use of clean and abundant energy.

The majority of the investigations on solar cooling are focused on the engineering, energy, and materials science of these processes.

The future energy practices are aimed at solar thermal cooling technologies. This condition is given by the thermal storage potential of this practice.

Researchers of the United States of America, Italia, and China lead these investigations. The investigations in Europe and America are concentrated on productive research, but there are not so many researchers. In China, research in solar cooling in buildings is a topic addressed by a large number of authors.

Building envelope, thermal performance and thermal comfort represent a group of strongly related terms or more likely to occur in the investigations in the field of solar cooling in buildings.

The next few years will be decisive for the success and the development of better technologies in solar cooling systems, which depend on the incentives and promotion plans provided by the people in charge of formulating environmental and energy efficiency policies.

Research in thermo-mechanical cooling for heating and cooling of buildings is an area with very few works. Materials science and control and thermal efficiency of the process are research opportunities in this type of cooling in buildings.


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Received: February 20, 2018; Accepted: May 25, 2018

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