UK industrial strategy must consider 'clean cold'

Written by Professor Toby Peters on 7 April 2017 in Comment

'Clean cold' could be a launchpad for UK industry to lift off, writes Professor Toby Peters

Moon from Orbit - NASA/Johnson

“The sequence looks good, we’re just over budget on the amperage.”

If the scriptwriters of the film Apollo 13 got a dollar every time somebody quoted their dialogue, they could probably fund the next space mission themselves: “Houston, we have a problem”; “Failure is not an option”. But my favourite line hardly ever gets an airing.

It comes from the key scene in which the astronauts and mission controllers struggle to find the tiny amount of power – just four amps - required to restart the command module’s systems and bring the crippled spacecraft safely home.

“Ken – you’re telling me what you need. I’m telling you what we have to work with.”


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For me, the scene provides a perfect analogy for the challenge of achieving sustainable development we face today. In both, the mission is life-or-death important and resources are critically constrained. The astronauts and engineers work together to solve the problem by fundamentally rethinking their energy systems, and we must do the same.

By 2030, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals commit the international community to abolish poverty and hunger; provide good healthcare, education, decent work, gender equality and access to clean water for all; and to promote affordable clean energy, sustainable cities, infrastructure, climate action, economic growth and responsible consumption. Achieving all this in less than 15 years is a monumental challenge.

The problem is, of course, that western standards of living have been achieved through reckless resource depletion, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. If everyone on earth took the same route, we would quickly need the resources of three planets, and even if we could conjure up those resources, climate change would soon snuff us out.

Yet we cannot deny the legitimate aspirations of billions. Our aim has to be a world where everyone can live well and within the sustainable limits of our planet. Increasing demand is a given, resources are finite and time is against us. This is our Apollo 13 moment.

That means going back to first principles. Instead of asking how to improve the efficiency of incumbent technologies by a few percentage points, we need to start from the other end of the problem, and ask what services we need, and how we can redesign the system to supply them within our available natural resources

This is nowhere truer than in cooling - the invisible pillar of civilisation. Without cold, the supply of food, medicine and data would simply break down. But conventional technologies are also energy intensive and highly polluting.

Cooling accounts for about 7 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions today – double that of aviation and maritime combined – and is projected to nearly double by 2030.

Currently when we talk about energy, we often mean electricity, and when we talk about energy storage, we default to batteries. This blurring of concepts matters because it fails to recognise that much of our energy is already consumed as heat or cold; that cooling will be one of the fastest growing sources of energy demand for the rest of this century and that cooling would often be better served by energy carriers other than electricity and batteries. So like the astronauts, we urgently need to rethink our energy systems.

Cooling demand is growing at a furious pace, driven by population growth, rising incomes and changing lifestyles in developing countries, and the impact of climate change. In Europe, cooling in buildings is expected to grow 70 per cent over the next 15 years, while cold chain for food logistics is growing apace, driven by home shopping. In the Gulf region half of all electricity already goes on cooling.

But meeting projected demand growth will require US$100 billion in new cooling capacity and over US$120 billion in new power capacity - if the Gulf sticks to conventional technologies. And on current trends, by 2100 the electricity needed for global air-conditioning alone will equate to around half the power generated for all purposes today.  We cannot simply green this volume of new electricity. 

At the same time, billions of people in developing countries live without cooling and suffer the consequences daily. The lack of adequate ‘cold chains’ of refrigerated warehousing and transport causes two million vaccine preventable deaths each year, and the waste of 200 million tonnes of food - with impacts far beyond hunger and lost revenue for farmers. Food wastage occupies a land area almost twice the size of Australia; consumes 250km3 of water per year, three times the volume of Lake Geneva; and emits 3.3bn tonnes of CO2, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China.

If we meet this vast pent-up demand through conventional cooling technologies, it will simply mitigate one problem by significantly worsening others - such as greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution. To reconcile this demand with finite resources, we need to develop transformational thinking.

And to do that we need to bring together the key stakeholders to deliver a system-level approach that fundamentally rethinks our delivery of cooling.

A growing number of British entrepreneurs and researchers are developing new technologies to meet the demand for cold sustainably. But it will be hard for individual technologies to achieve their full potential unless they are part of a “cold economy” system. 

It will be challenging for, say, a clean cold transportation company to be successful unless we also have system integrated clean cold pack-houses, thermal energy storage and so on. We need a system-level approach, understanding the size and location of the resources and the development of novel energy vectors, thermal stores and business re-wiring that allow them to be optimally integrated with the different cooling services and cooling loads.

For these reasons I would argue that it is vital that we establish a new Institute for Clean Cold to provide robust, integrated test and demonstration facilities, co-ordinate thinking at a system level, and lead on the business ‘re-wiring’ needed to support clean cold. This will ensure that British innovation remains central to a global multi-billion £ market providing a vital service that is set to grow for the rest of this century. As a result, we will also better meet our own cooling demands, and create jobs and exports.

The government’s industrial strategy proposes to support world leading sectors – and not simply those that are well established, such as aerospace and automotive. “A modern British industrial strategy”, writes Business Secretary Greg Clark, “must make this country a fertile ground for new businesses and new industries which will challenge and in some cases displace the companies and industries of today”.

A prime candidate is clean cooling, where Britain is already a world leader. Clean cold, sustainable, low carbon, low impact and cheaper than incumbent fossil fuel and batter-electric systems, is nothing less than critical to sustainability and business resilience worldwide. 

A report published by the University of Birmingham found that clean cold would help deliver all seventeen of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

If so, like the Apollo 13 team saving the lives of three astronauts, clean cold will help bring the world’s consumption of primary resources safely back down to earth.


Professor Toby Peters is visiting professor in Transformational Innovation for Sustainability at Heriot-Watt University



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