In the UK we take cold for granted.
We can always buy food that has been kept cold from farm to fork. We don’t consider the energy required to keep vaccines cold. And when we update Facebook, the amount of cooling needed by data centres doesn’t cross people’s minds.
But providing cold has a substantial impact on the environment and our energy systems. About 16% of the electricity generated in the UK goes on keeping things and people cool.
And the problem is getting worse. The EU estimates the amount of energy used to cool buildings could rise by over 70% by 2025, whereas the amount of energy required for heating will fall by 30%.
But cooling in mature markets is just the tip of the iceberg. People around the world are becoming richer and technology is becoming more accessible.
China bought 50 million domestic air conditioning units in 2010. To meet future demand for air conditioning, we will need to build 2.6 million wind turbines – at the end of 2014, there were only 268,000 turbines on the planet.
Meanwhile, to feed growing populations and to cut food loss, the number of refrigerated vehicles on the road could increase from under 4 million today, to more than 15 million by 2025.
This constitutes an avalanche of cold demand. And when it strikes, it could have a major impact on emissions.
As The University of Birmingham’s Policy Commission concludes – we must do cold smarter.
We can’t eliminate demand for cooling. To try would be like King Canute attempting to hold back the waves. But we can find ways to deliver cold in less harmful ways, reduce waste, increase efficiency and save money.
If we act now, while the megacities of tomorrow are being planned and joined-up cold chains are being established, we can alleviate the worst environmental impacts.
But only if commercially viable alternatives are established quickly.
In so doing, we can establish a whole new industry based on clean-cold technologies. The Carbon Trust estimated that a new Cold Economy could employ 10,000 people in the UK alone by 2025.
But the real opportunity lies in integration of technologies and talking a systems-level approach. We have an opportunity to consider how energy is actually required and how best to meet that need.
To give an example, LNG is gas which has been chilled to -160 degrees. It’s an energy intensive process, but when we import gas, that cold isn’t put to good use.
Huge quantities of cold is wasted at import terminals, while down the road people are consuming electricity to refrigerate food or to cool a data centre.
If people need cold, why can’t we find ways to harness, store, transport and utilise energy thermally? There isn’t a need to always revert to electricity transmission or batteries. It’s right in some instances, but not in all.
Because of work conducted by The University of Birmingham and others, the UK now has a head start. It’s home to a number of cutting-edge technology companies who are creating the tools we need to do cold smarter.
But to maximise both the environmental and economic impact, we must turn the UK into a shop window. We must apply the world class know-how we have developed at home, in order to sell the proposition internationally.
The Policy Commission has set out a vision which could change the way we create, manage and use cold. It’s vital that its recommendations are adopted quickly and we catalyse the burgeoning clean cold sector before the avalanche hits.