As we plan energy strategies, ‘clean cooling’ needs to come in from the cold | View

Electricity pylons and a cooling tower from Eggborough power station
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By Toby Peters

From air conditioning in our offices, restaurants and shops, to ice-creams and ice in our drinks, we are this summer experiencing the value of cooling to our comfort and productivity.

We need to take a hard look at how we provide cooling and devise a radically more efficient approach. If we do not, the irony is that as we strive to cool ourselves down, we shall be heating the planet up …. requiring more cooling.

Toby Peters Professor in Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham

With the global population increasing, rapid changes in demographics, expanding urbanisation and climate change impacts leading to more frequent heatwaves and seasonal temperatures rises, there is no question that we will globally demand far more cooling in the decades ahead. In fact, over the next 30 years we are projected to see 19 cooling appliances (air conditioners, fridges, chilled display units in our shops) deployed somewhere in the world every second; by 2050, there could be more than 9.5 billion cooling appliances worldwide – more than 2.5 times today’s ~3.6 billion.

Cooling is energy intensive. We are seeing the development of more efficient cooling technologies, but even allowing for these and other more aggressive energy mitigation strategies, the cooling sector will, on current trajectory, increase its overall energy consumption by 90% by 2050 to ~7,500TWh annually compared with 2018 levels (3,900TWh); potentially 9,500TWh if we do not achieve the aggressive energy efficiency strategies.

And this is only half the picture. Under these projections, much of the world would still only have low penetration levels of cooling. We would still have high levels of food loss, a significant percentage of the world’s population in the hottest regions of the world without cooling, and medicines and vaccines spoiled in the supply chain.

Recently published analysis led by the University of Birmingham suggests that if we are to deliver access to cooling for all with no-one left behind, by 2050, the world could require 14 billion cooling appliances globally - four times as many as are in use today, and 4.5 billion more than current global projections for 2050. This would see the cooling sector consume up to 19,000TWh per annum; five times the amount of energy it does today.

Without radical intervention, ‘greening’ this volume of electricity could consume the world’s projected renewables capacity in 2050. Radical intervention means a reduction of around 70% in electricity usage for cooling. Optimistic projections from Birmingham’s analysis suggest around 30% may be possible, but with significant cost implications.

We need to take a hard look at how we provide cooling and devise a radically more efficient approach. If we do not, the irony is that as we strive to cool ourselves down, we shall be heating the planet up …. requiring more cooling.

The problem is that when people talk about energy, they often mean electricity, and when they talk about energy storage, they mean batteries. This blurring of concepts matters because it fails to recognise some basic energy facts-of-life: that a large slice of our consumption comes in the form of thermal energy (cooling and heating); that one of the fastest growing sources of energy demand over the next twenty years will be for cooling; and that cooling would often be better served by energy carriers other than electricity and batteries. Ice Energy and SureChill, for example, use ice to store energy for use on demand for air conditioning and off-grid vaccine fridges.

‘Clean cooling’ is the provision of cooling through efficient and sustainable means that contribute towards achieving society’s goals for greenhouse gas emissions reduction, climate change mitigation, natural resource conservation and air quality improvement. Clean cooling necessarily must be accessible, affordable, financially sustainable, scalable, safe and reliable to help deliver our societal, economic and health goals.

It goes without saying that clean cooling has to start with what we can do today to reduce demand and deliver incremental efficiency improvements; more effective use of shade and natural ventilation in building design, painting roofs white and putting doors on chillers in supermarkets is a good start - through to installing best-in-class refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment and using district cooling systems where possible. But though these interventions are important, given the growth in cooling demand, they will not deliver the required reductions in energy usage, emissions and pollution, nor will they adequately increase resource productivity.

Delivering clean cooling is, therefore, also about investing in a radical reshaping of cooling provision; addressing technology, operations, financing and consumer behaviour in a holistic approach from a systems perspective. It involves understanding multiple cooling needs, and the size and location of the free, waste, and wrong-time energy resources available to help meet demand. We need to define the right mix of novel energy vectors, thermal stores, cooling technologies, business models and policy interventions to optimally integrate those resources through self-organising systems. In short, thinking thermally.

By pooling demand and fully understanding the portfolio of resources available, a re-mapping of processes and technology to achieve efficiencies is facilitated that would not be possible from a sub-system perspective. As one example in Europe currently we ‘dump’ the thousands of MWhs of waste cold from our LNG regasification terminals.

The provision of comprehensive clean cooling is a prerequisite for a sustainable future. The sooner we recognise this fully and invest accordingly, the better our chances for a successful outcome for humans in the 21st Century.

Toby Peters is Professor in Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham

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