On Wednesday 18th April experts on cooling from across the globe will gather at the University of Birmingham for two days of discussions, brainstorming and solutions development to begin seriously tackling one of the 21st Century’s biggest energy challenges, how to meet future demand for cold in a sustainable way. As part of a major worldwide initiative lead by the University’s Professor Toby Peters, this landmark event embraces not only a broad range of industries and applications of cooling, but also of professional practitioners from engineers and technologists, to financiers, international development specialists, policy makers, and a thought leader and book author or two.
Cooling is at the foundations of contemporary society and without it our modern way of life simply would not exist. From the largely hidden IT infrastructure that allows us to communicate, do business and socialise electronically worldwide, to the productivity improving air-conditioning of our workplaces and the integrated chain of refrigeration that brings fresh and frozen food to our tables from across the globe, it is everywhere. Indeed, it is very hard to imagine life today without it. But being ‘without it’ is the norm for many and at the core of one of this century’s biggest energy challenges.
We humans are urbanising and urbanising fast. In fact, with an additional 2.5 billion people projected to move into cities and urban landscapes over the next 30 years we are expected to reach approximately 66% urbanised by 2050. The key characteristic of this trend is that most of these new urbanites will be located in the developing economies of the world, particularly those of Asia and Africa. Indeed, the current large-scale migration of people from rural to urban environments in these regions is set to continue in the decades ahead, resulting in around 90% of the anticipated urban population increase to mid-century taking place on these two continents alone.
Along with urbanisation comes increased affluence and changes in lifestyle aspirations that fuel demand for higher levels of building comfort, better healthcare provision, broader internet access and a greater range of quality food choices that include more fresh produce and convenience products, such as frozen meals and quick service outlets. All of which turns ‘being without’ cooling into a rush to ‘being with’ cooling. In the built environment alone, the demand for air conditioning is anticipated to grow by 33 times between now and the end of the century, potentially creating an associated increase in electricity consumption in developing countries of around 10,000TWh annually. That is roughly the equivalent of half of today’s total power production worldwide. The problem is that if this electricity is delivered using our conventional fossil fuel based power infrastructure of generating stations, grids and stand-alone gen-sets, the environmental damage and resource depletion will likely lead to impacts upon us that are substantial and potentially unforgiving. And, of-course, it is the same scale of problem in the areas of internet access, food supply chains, healthcare provision and many more sectors underpinned by cooling provision.
The challenge is therefore to deliver cooling more sustainably. Beyond changing cultural and behavioural trends to encourage cooling demand reduction, and relearning past practices of working with natural process such as shade, ventilation and reflection to deliver cooling, this means increasing the energy efficiency of cooling technologies and harnessing sources of wasted cold and clean energy. But as those of us working in the CleanTech sector know well, this is no easy task and presents a myriad of challenges to all involved in making the transition happen.
For engineers, the challenges are about ensuring the solutions they come up with are first and foremost affordable and scalable, within the context of the market they are intended for, as well as safe, reliable and easy to build, operate and maintain within the local knowledge and technical skills base. They also need to start thinking thermally, not just electrically, and to focus on developing sustainable solutions that embody systems thinking and address the food-water-energy-land nexus relationship. But in addition to innovation in engineering, we need to see innovations in business models and financing mechanisms that recognise the different investment profiles of, what are typically, capital heavy CleanTech solutions and address the cash flow realities of developing and emerging economies. And we need policy makers to create enabling environments that remove barriers to progress and provide supportive frameworks and regulatory regimes.
And for the thought leaders and book authors? The task is to tease out the unforeseen consequences of shifting to a world of sustainable cooling provision, in terms of broad social, economic and environmental impacts, and to lead a new level of thinking and articulation on what it means to have a fully functioning ‘Cold Economy’.
This first of a kind international Congress in Birmingham will bring these players together, not just to talk, but to work hard together at understanding and tackling these challenges. It is a testimony to Toby Peters’ unrelenting drive, energy and commitment to catalysing a change in cooling provision. Most importantly, it is a unique opportunity to define and take actions that will set us on a permanent course to a cooler, more sustainable and better world for billions, we owe it to our fellow humans to make it a success.
This blog has been written by Dr Tim Fox, Independent Consultant, Chair, IMechE Food & Drink Engineering Committee and Vice-Chair, IMechE Process Industries Division Board. Dr Fox is an internationally recognised expert on clean energy, sustainable food systems and climate change mitigation. He is an independent consultant with professional interests in thought leadership, policy advocacy, product and company commercialisation, business development, funding acquisition and public engagement. Tim is a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), where he is Chair of the Food & Drink Engineering Committee and Incoming Chair of the Process Industries Division Board, as well as a Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Clean Energy and Public Engagement at Exeter University.