The Cold Economy

The provision of cold, or cooling, is integral to modern society; without it, the supply of food, medicine and data would simply break down. Cold is also vital for many other applications including air conditioning, super-critical technologies and freezing and powdering materials for recycling and easy disposal. Yet cooling currently consumes large amounts of energy and causes a great deal of pollution.

E4tech has estimated that more than 10% of Britain’s electricity goes to cooling, and we spend around £5.2 billion each year on energy for cold across the grid and transport. These figures will be significantly higher in warmer countries, while in rapidly developing nations such as China and India investment in cooling is starting to boom. India projects it needs to spend $15bn on cold china alone in the next five years.  

At the same time, however, vast amounts of cold are wasted, for example during the re-gasification of LNG at import terminals, which could potentially be recycled to reduce the cost and environmental impact of cooling in buildings, industry and vehicles.

The global cold chain
is expected to grow by
13% p.a.

The next 10 years of development in the reconfiguration of the UK’s energy landscape and the rapid building out of the energy infrastructure in the emerging markets requires an accelerated adoption of a variety of energy technologies. Many of these technologies will be a radical departure from the traditional methodologies. As we move towards delivering greater energy efficiency through new technologies in more integrated energy systems, there is a clear need to join up not just heat and power and transport, but should this include cold as well?

This insight has stimulated new thinking aimed at creating business and environmental value from the efficient integration of cold into the wider energy system, now known as the ‘Cold Economy’.  The Cold Economy is based on a systems analysis and covers many aspects of efficiency, but crucially involves the recycling of waste cold and ‘wrong time’ energy – such as excess wind power generated at night when demand is low - to provide, through novel forms of energy storage - low-carbon, zero-emission cooling and power.

A joined-up Cold Economy could deliver:

A diesel transport refrigeration unit 
consumes up to
of a refrigerated vehicle's diesel but can emit up to;
six times as
much NOx

29 times as much
particulate matte
as a modern truck engine


  • Reduced green house gas emissions and improved local air quality;
  • Increased overall system efficiency;
  • Lower overall cost;
  • New business and export opportunities and jobs for UK plc;
  • Greater opportunities for integrating renewable energy technologies.

Developing a Cold Economy would likely require:

  • Systemic analysis that incorporates cold flows, including spatial and temporal balancing of dynamic needs;
  • Greater recycling of waste energy, including waste cold from LNG regasification, to supply cooling;
  • Using liquid air and other cryogens as energy vectors, to store and deliver cold and power;
  • Developing more efficient technologies, materials and practices.

Equally the full potential of the Cold Economy is only just beginning to emerge. Could it develop into a global market in clean cold technologies potentially worth many billions of pounds and creating a wealth of new job opportunities?

With new technologies and thought leadership in the field, there is a real opportunity for Britain to build an R&D conveyer belt from invention to global market. But turning the Cold Economy from idea into reality will depend on joined-up thinking and collaboration across industry, academia and government to develop, test and deploy novel solutions. We need a high quality research and training environment to attract the best worldwide. Planning and investment must focus in a joined-up approach on three key areas: R&D; manufacturing and skills:-

  • Develop integrated system level thinking and commercial solutions addressing identified market needs;
  • Understand the technology roadmap (research and manufacturing) to support the accelerated delivery of novel technologies that underpin the development, deployment, effective integration and optimisation of cold technologies for industry, buildings and transport;
  • Identify the apprenticeship and training needed to compliment the product pipeline, meeting in good time the needs of research, manufacturing, assembly, integration and after sales service.

While the benefits and opportunities of the Cold Economy are beginning to be understood, along with the urgent need to integrate cold into the energy system and policy landscape, there is still much more analysis to be done: the full impact of the ‘business as usual’ approach has not yet been calculated;  nor the scale of the opportunity definitively established; nor the detailed means of securing it mapped out.

If refrigerant usage trends continue,
will be responsible for nearly half of all
global greenhouse gas emissions by

Below are five questions for industry, thought leaders, government and the research community, the answers to which should illuminate the potential environmental, health and economic benefits of a Cold Economy, along with the scale of the potential opportunity for Britain, and any policy measures needed to secure it.

  • What is the scale of the demand for cooling services up to 2030 and beyond in the UK and globally?
  • What would be the environmental, economic and health impacts of a business as usual approach? What is the economic case for cold technologies – does it really make sense?
  • What would be the full economic value to UK plc of developing a system-level strategy and associated clean cold technologies, including GDP, jobs, exports, and environmental and health impacts? Does the business case stack up?
  • What are the industrial, R&D and skill requirements that the UK requires to become a global leader in the development of new products and services for the Cold Economy worldwide?
  • Is cold sufficiently recognised and integrated into policy on energy, air quality, transport, exports and overseas aid, and if not, what changes should be introduced?