Wake up to the cold economy

As new research highlights the significance of cooling to UK and global decarbonisation targets, Nick Winser explains his new found interest in this overlooked energy vector.

Wake up to the cold economy
[image_library_tag 5cf1789e-ac77-4590-a52b-cddd724b1417 150×175 alt=” ick inser chair nergy ystems atapult” width=”150″ border=”0″ ] Nick Winser, chair, Energy Systems Catapult

 In April of this year I was invited to join a Commission on Cold, set up by The University of Birmingham. I’m in the fortunate position of receiving invites for a variety of think tanks but I have to confess that I was initially quite sceptical about this one. That’s because, during my time as UK executive director at National Grid, I can count the number of conversations we had about ‘cold’ on the fingers of one hand.

There are very good reasons for this. In the UK we have always regarded ourselves as a relatively cold climate, which emphasises the need for heat. And that’s not just within the industry, the many hundreds of reports that tackle energy and climate change, also talk about carbon emissions associated with generating heat.

But the world has slowly been changing around us. On my shopping list this morning were blueberries and raspberries, which I picked up from the supermarket chiller cabinet. These are available year round and rely on a cold transport chain, as is so much of our 21st century diet. Similarly, creeping up on us over the past 30 years has been the amount of heat generated by office computers and data centres, which also need year-round cooling.

The net impact is that the amount of energy used to cool our lives is expected to surge over the next few decades. And yet the current technologies we use for cooling consume large amounts of energy and can be highly polluting. For instance the refrigeration units on trucks are vastly less efficient than the engines running the vehicles.

The UK’s climate change targets are rightly very ambitious – reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. This means that every part of the energy system has to be addressed, we simply can’t afford to have any passengers. A huge challenge will be to find whole system solutions not just for tomorrow and 2050 but for each and every point in between. The many different opportunities for supplying low carbon cold will fit well into the need for deep and new thinking on system integration.

There are benefits in moving quickly. Providing refrigeration and air conditioning to customers using less energy also has huge potential and effective cold storage can flatten the demand curve or move demand to periods when low carbon power is plentiful.

“The UK’s climate change targets are rightly very ambitious – reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. This means that every part of the energy system has to be addressed, we simply can’t afford to have any passengers.”

But a number of things have to happen to make it a reality. We need much more academic research into cold energy (as well as other energy innovations such as smart grids and hydrogen). This will help put a spotlight on the opportunity. We also need to unleash the UK’s innovative minds to bring new technologies to market so that they can be integrated into our system and, crucially, be exported overseas.

Cooling is a global issue and becoming ever more acute across large swathes of the Middle East, the Americas, Africa, India and Asia.

And if the UK can establish a leadership position in this growing area, the economic and job creation benefits are substantial. 

The results of Birmingham Universtity’s Commission on Cold are availble from today in a reort titled: Doing Cold Smarter which is availble to download here.


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