As the world’s leaders descend on the ski resort of Davos once more, they will have come prepared for a snowy climate. Given the sub-zero temperatures they’ll face, the planet’s growing need for cooling is unlikely to be high on their agendas. But if we want to build a sustainable and resilient future, in the face of major international challenges, it should be.
One of the key purposes of this global gathering, is to assess the challenges being faced by our planet and by our economy. These include the need to feed and water a growing population; how we can avoid or at least respond to energy shocks; and how we can meet development goals without creating unacceptable environmental consequences.
I believe that cold sits at the nexus of all of these global issues.
Millions of tonnes of food, which could nourish people and provide revenue for communities ends up being dumped, all because much of the developing world doesn’t have access to a joined up cold chain. That wasted food represents a vast loss of economic value, along with a squandering of the water, energy and natural resources that were consumed in its production. In fact, production of food that does not make it to the plate is the third largest emitter of CO2 after the US and China.
Meanwhile, disease continues to blight much of the developing world. Drugs and particularly vaccines that we take for granted in the west are still not available to many rural communities. Two million people die every year from preventable diseases because they could not access vaccines which need to be kept cold.
These challenges could all be addressed, at least in part, by making cooling more available to individuals and communities.
But the question is, what burden is this escalating demand for cold placing on our already scarce resources and on the environment? Do we have to accept that, to improve people’s living standards, we must accept a knock on impact which could jeopardise our collective future?
I believe that it is possible to both address the need for cooling – to give people access to food, medicine, data and prevent unnecessary waste – and to do so without negative environmental impacts. Achieving this requires a paradigm shift in the way we consider energy.
It’s time to stop thinking about energy as a commodity – and begin to consider it as a service that exists to provide businesses and individuals with the form they need. People don’t fundamentally need electricity, they need heat, and increasingly they need cold. It’s time we thought beyond just electrons.
A different approach is necessary simply because of the scale of the problem. Cooling demand is increasingly extremely quickly. To meet the demand for air conditioning that’s predicted by the end of the century with a ‘business as usual’ approach would require 2.6 million wind turbines, up from only 260,000 in operation around the world today. Cooling is going to put an enormous – in fact impossible – additional strain on energy systems.
And ever-expanding access to the web is dependent on data centres, where 50% of energy is for cooling and 600,000 new data centres are expected to be needed around the world.
No matter how hard we try, it will be almost impossible to decarbonise cooling, just by greening electricity. We have to change the way we generate cold, as well as the way we generate power.
We need a considered approach to providing people with the energy services that they require. Just as we have begun to provide combined heat and power systems and geo-thermal heating – so we need to consider how to create, capture, transport and harness cold most efficiently. And very real opportunities exist to do just that.
For example, the global LNG industry creates, but also wastes, vast quantities of cold each and every year. Tankers bring gas, which has been cooled to -160C into port, at which point all that valuable cold is wasted, rather than being harnessed. As a result, the maddening situation occurs where cold is being thrown away at an LNG terminal, while just down the road another facility is burning diesel to run its delivery vehicles or cold stores!
Similarly, we face a perverse challenge that often we have too much energy being generated. This occurs, generally at night, when there is limited power demand but potentially lots of generation activity from renewables or nuclear power. We can look for advanced and therefore expensive storage solutions to capture that excess power. Or, we could seek to store, transport and harness it thermally.
Liquid air technologies, such as the Dearman engine, present an opportunity to do just that. To maximise the use of power when it’s abundant or even to harness waste cold, and to enable people and businesses to access it when they need to.
Other companies such as Ice Bear are thinking in a very similar way and I believe we are on the cusp of a very significant shift, where we begin to think about cold at a system level.
If that happens, then I believe we will be able to address the global need for cold and help lessen many of the risks being discussed this week at Davos, without creating unintended environmental consequences.