The business of keeping things cold

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Keeping buildings cool in the United States takes as much electricity as used in Africa for everything.

We can easily miss the amount of effort that goes into keeping things cool.

We use cooling systems to air-condition our homes and commercial buildings, keep food fresh and transport it across countries and use it in countless industrial processes – from medicines to preservation.

The internet couldn’t survive without the vast amounts of cooling that go into keeping the data centres that power the internet economy going.

Increasing urbanization, with the majority of the world’s population living in cities, will make the challenges and problems associated with cooling worse, not better.

For example, the United States uses more energy for air-conditioning than the rest of the world put together.

Many developing countries, however, are getting richer fast and are in hot parts of the world. If they were to use air-conditioning like the U.S, they would use around 50 times more – and half the world’s energy could go just on cooling.

This could happen quickly. In 2010, Chinese consumers bought 50 million new domestic a/c units and 95% of Chinese homes have a fridge, compared to 7% in 1995.

If India had the same proportion of refrigerated trucks as the UK, the fleet would rise from the tens of thousands to 1.5 million vehicles.

The problem is that keeping things cold is a very polluting activity. The technology being used is a hundred years old, relies on chemical refrigerants and has plodded on – generally ignored in the background.

As we move into a low-carbon economy – increasing cold using conventional methods is not going to help us reduce emissions or stay on target.

That means there are a number of opportunities out there.

For example, we could learn how to use and re-use cold energy more effectively. With better data collection – using the Internet of Things (IoT) approach, we can figure out how to be smart in the way in which we cool things.

Keeping things cold needs energy – so using free energy from renewables, being smarter about when energy is used based on supply and demand and moving to ways of storing and moving cold energy rather than creating it on demand using electricity are all ways to be more efficient.

The challenge, as always, is to make a business case for action.

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