As the heat wave nudges UK temperatures beyond 35°C, many of us are wishing we had air conditioning at home as well as at work. And in future far more people in the UK probably will. According to National Grid scenario modelling, the number of domestic air conditioners in this country could soar from negligible today to 20 million by 2050, resulting in enormous impacts on the electricity grid. It is a sharp reminder of our urgent need to develop clean cold technologies and a circular ‘cold economy’, as proposed more than three years ago by the Birmingham Policy Commission, Doing Cold Smarter.
In one of National Grid’s scenarios, global temperatures rise by almost 3°C on average, and heat waves like the one we are experiencing will become a normal summer during the 2040s. By 2050 domestic air conditioners would consume 11TWh of electricity per year – equal to the current total consumption of Estonia – but cause peak demand on a summer weekend afternoon is expected to triple from under 20GW today to over 70GW.
The projected impact of domestic air conditioning is so extreme that it is believed that Britain will become a ‘twin peaks’ electricity system, with both a traditional winter late afternoon peak and a summer afternoon peak – making it harder for electricity generators to shut down power stations in summer for maintenance. Solar power will offset some of the increase but far from all of it, since the solar peak comes at midday rather than the end of the afternoon when temperatures are highest.
Britain, however, is far from unique. By 2050, we shall globally consume more energy for cooling than heating. By the end of the century air conditioning could consume around half the electricity generated worldwide for all purposes in 2010. And air conditioning is just one form of cooling: demand for refrigeration, data centres and food and pharmaceutical cold chains is also soaring. So far, the scale of the challenge has scarcely been recognised. But a recent report by the Birmingham Energy Institute shows that global demand for energy for cooling could grow more than 5x by 2050 if we are to meet the full demand.
What does this mean?
We need to take a hard look at how we provide cooling and devise a radically more efficient approach. If we do not, the irony is that as we strive to cool ourselves down, we shall be heating the planet up which will only result in us requiring more cooling.
The problem is that when people talk about energy, they often mean electricity, and when they talk about energy storage, they mean batteries.
This blurring of concepts matters fails to recognise some basic energy facts-of-life:
- a large slice of our consumption comes in the form of thermal energy
- one of the fastest growing sources of energy demand over the next twenty years will be for cooling
- cooling would often be better served by energy carriers other than electricity and batteries.
This system approach would both mitigate the pressure of cooling loads on electricity grids around the world and greatly improve the resource efficiency and environmental footprint of cooling – the ‘cold economy’.
The National Grid’s modelling shows this approach makes sense not just for the countries we traditionally consider hot, but for the UK too. Luckily Britain has developed world-leading expertise in clean cold through its innovative start-ups and universities, so the cold economy is not simply an environmental imperative, but also a major economic opportunity.
The government’s new Industrial Strategy is intended to foster innovation, new industries, growth and international trade. It is hard to think of an emerging global sector that meets all these criteria better than clean cooling, where Britain has already established a global lead. Britain should seize this opportunity both to tame its own cooling demand before it becomes a serious problem, and to generate exports and jobs.
For further information please read “A Cool World – Defining the Energy Conundrum of Cooling for All [PDF]”