The Perfect Cooling Storm

On the 15th November I was privileged to be in the opulence of the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi with several hundred honoured guests, delegates and entrants gathered from all over the world for an event that addressed one of the biggest drivers of how our climate future turns out, the growth of demand for cooling and how to meet that demand sustainably.

It is only in the last few years that the importance of cooling has been recognised by energy and climate professionals, that solving the sustainable cooling problem is absolutely critical if we are going to successfully address climate change. Several mega-trends are in play. Population growth, income growth, urbanisation and a warming planet will lead to an increase in cooling demand that multiples by four by 2050 under BAU. Sales of Room Air Conditioners (RACs) are growing at 10 to 15% per annum which means that by 2050 the number of RACs in the world will go from 1.2 billion today to 4.5 billion. At current efficiency levels the additional electricity demand from this growth would be equivalent to the current demand from the US, Germany and Japan combined. Cooling also increases peak demand which traditionally drives investment in new generating capacity.

In emerging economies, many of which are in hot climates, the demand for space cooling increases with increasing wealth. Urbanisation is increasing, 68% of the global population is expected to live in cities by 2050, up from 55% today, which will increase the heat island effect. Space cooling is not just an issue of comfort, it is increasingly a matter of life and death. Already, 30 percent of the world’s population is exposed to potentially dangerous heat conditions; by 2100, up to three-quarters could be at risk. Affordable and sustainable cooling is a global necessity, allowing for increased productivity, positive health outcomes, and accelerated economic development. As well as more demand for space cooling increasing wealth brings it with an increased use of cold chains.

The problem is best illustrated by India which was the first country in the world to devise a national Cooling Action Plan. The BAU scenario shows that national cooling demand will grow 8 times by 2037/38 with building sector cooling demand growing nearly 11 times. The incremental energy usage just for RACs would be 247.5 TWh (for comparison UK power usage in 2018 was 333 TWh), requiring construction of many new power stations. This is not sustainable in terms of the environment or capital requirements. India also graphically shows the issue of cold chains, only 4% of food produce is transported in cold chains whereas in the UK it is over 90%. This leads to c.£13 billion worth of vegetables, meat, fish and dairy products being wasted, contributing to food shortages and reduced farmer incomes. As well as improving food supplies cold chains improve health through preserving medicines. With its national Cooling Action Plan and heavy involvement in the Cooling Prize, India really is ‘ground zero’ for addressing this problem.

So how do we address the problem? Business As Usual won’t do it and innovation is sorely needed. The air conditioning industry has always focused on reducing capital costs and there have been incredible achievements in cost reduction but unlike other consumer products such as TVs, cars, and communications, there has been no disruptive innovations in air conditioning since the development of vapour compression cycle technology and the first air conditioning installation in 1902 by Mr Carrier. The Global Cooling Prize, initiated by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is supported by a range of organisations including the Government of India, Mission Innovation, several foundations and the Indian Alliance for an Energy Efficient Economy amongst others. It was designed to find and support disruptive innovation. The target was to find new cooling technologies with very specific, and very demanding targets – starting with a reduction in overall global warming impact by a factor of five, as well as much lower power demand and lower water use.

Over 2,100 registrations were received from 96 countries and 139 detailed technical submissions were received from 31 countries. Eight finalists were unveiled at the November meeting.

The prize offered up to $200,000 per finalist for development work and up to $1m for the final winner (to be announced in November 2020). As Iain Campbell of RMI, one of the driving forces behind the Prize said, the announcement of the finalists moved the process from “tell me what you can do” to “show me what you can do”. The selected finalists will now have to produce prototypes that will undergo a rigorous testing process in India, including in actual apartments. The eight finalists have a range of technologies, some of which were based on existing technologies and some on completely new technologies. Entrants ranged from consortia including some of the world’s biggest air conditioning manufacturers, to start-ups and University spin-offs.

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol aims to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by 80% over the next 30 years and if fully implemented the Amendment would reduce carbon emissions from air conditioning from c.5 Gt to c.3 Gt. If the Cooling Prize targets were achieved it could reduce that to c.1Gt. This would be equivalent to making the European Union carbon neutral tomorrow.

The Global Cooling Prize is a great project and like the X Prizes for spaceflight and other areas it shows the power of prizes. To quote Iain Campbell again, “the beauty of prizes is that instead of looking for a needle in a haystack the needle comes to you”. It is likely that many of the finalists, and other entrants, may end up with viable products, not just the final winner. We clearly need to ensure that multiple solutions are in development and that there is an eco-system of early stage capital and mentorship for the early stage businesses, as well as scale-up capital when needed. We should all follow the Global Cooling Prize with great interest.

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