The Energy Drain in the Cold Economy

By Toby Peters / Professor in Cold Economy, University of Birmingham, UK 09/08/2018

With populations growing, along with continued urbanisation and climate change, there is no question that we will need far more cooling. By 2050, according to the Green Cooling Initiative, there could be more than 9.5bn cooling appliances worldwide – more than 2.5 times today’s 3.6bn. Cooling, however, is energy intensive. Even with the development of more efficient cooling technologies and other more aggressive energy mitigation strategies, the cooling sector will, on current trajectory, increase its overall energy consumption by at least 90% to 7500TWh/year by 2050, up from 3900TWh in 2017.

However, that is only half the picture. Despite the significant growth in cooling equipment stock, much of the world will remains considerably under-served compared with the most advanced nations. Put another way, even with some 9.5 billion cooling appliances in use by 2050 this will not be sufficient to deliver universal access to cooling, let alone meet targets to reach the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

Without ‘Cooling for All’, food and medicine loss in the supply chain will be high; food poisoning from lack of domestic temperature management will be significant; farmers will lack market connectivity, hundreds of millions of people will not have safe, let alone comfortable, living or working environments; medical centres will not have temperature-controlled services for post-natal care, etc.

We have a problem.

Effective refrigeration is essential to preserve food and medicine. It underpins industry and economic growth, is key to sustainable urbanisation as well as providing a ladder out of rural poverty. It increasingly makes much of the world bearable - or even safe - to live in. But the growth of artificial cooling will create massive demand for energy and, unless we can reduce our need for cooling and roll out solutions for clean and sustainable cooling provision, this will cause high levels of CO2e and pollution.

As an indication of the impact of widespread global access to cooling, at the University of Birmingham we have looked at scenarios where the world has “Cooling for All”. The number of cooling appliances rises to more than 14bn. Even assuming accelerated technology progress projections delivering aggressive energy performance improvements, the energy requirement still equates to 15,500 TWh which is approx. 2.5x the 6,300 TWh maximum sector allocation envisaged by the IEA 2 degrees scenario.

To achieve the required amount of cooling within the energy budget available would require us to double the efficiency of our cooling devices on average, in addition to the technology progress proposed currently. Alternatively to “green” this volume of electricity would require more than 50% of the total projected renewables capacity for all demands from transport to industry to our cities under the IEA’s 2°C Scenario.

The world must not solve a social crisis by creating an environmental catastrophe; we need to ensure access to affordable cooling with minimum environmental impact and maximum efficient use of natural and waste resources.

If cooling is to be sustainable, then we need more efficient air-conditioners and fridges, but this is not enough. We must also see a fundamental overhaul of the way cooling is provided.

The Cold Economy is the development of cohesive and integrated system-level strategies to mitigate and meet cooling needs sustainably within our climate change, natural resource and clean air targets, while supporting economy growth. 

This involves understanding the multiple cooling needs and the size and location of the thermal, waste and wrong-time energy resources to define the step-change novel energy vectors, thermal stores, clean cooling technologies and novel business models, policy and societal interventions to optimally integrate those resources and cooling needs through self-organising systems.

Core to this is using surplus cold and heat. For example, we should harness the cold energy of liquefied natural gas (LNG) along with industrial waste heat and low-grade geothermal energy. By 2025, we shall be throwing away $bns of waste cold from LNG alone, primarily into the sea.

To achieve the necessary step change, we need to start by asking ourselves a new question. No longer ‘how much green electricity do we need to generate?’ but rather ‘what is the service we require, and how can we provide it in the least damaging way?’

Given the urgency and magnitude of the challenge and the multi-partner and multi-disciplinary research and delivery mechanisms required, to lead this work we urge the establishment of a multi-disciplinary Centre of Excellence for Clean Cooling (CEfCC) to bring the global expertise together to research and develop the step-change pathways for achieving sustainable cooling while meeting social and economic cooling needs. 

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