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In 2015, the Birmingham Energy Institute will launch its policy commission on ‘the cold economy’. Birmingham Policy Commissions bring leading figures from the public, private and third sectors together with Birmingham academics to generate new thinking on contemporary issues of global, national and civic concern. 

At the Birmingham Energy Institute, our aim is to look at cold at a system level, and how to join up the demand and the waste. This approach would cut energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, toxic air pollution and cost. In emerging economies it could also help reduce high levels of post-harvest food loss, which in turn would conserve water, land and energy, improve farmers’ incomes and stimulate trade and growth without negative environmental impact.

The demand for cooling, and its energy and environmental cost, is now being recognised as much as it is for heat. There are opportunities for businesses and technologies to exploit the synergies, in the UK and globally. The global cold chain is expected to grow 16% per year – with >25% growth in developing for reducing food waste and delivering medicines. 

Toby Peters, Visiting Professor of Power and Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham summarises the BEI’s ‘Commission on Cold’

“As the need for cold across the globe rapidly increases – with rising demand for air conditioning, industrial and medical cooling, refrigerated food storage and transport – a new sustainable approach is required to the way cold is provided.

Studies show that if developing countries had the same level of cold chain as developed countries, they could save 200 million tonnes of perishable food annually. In markets such as India and China, static and transport cold chain is seeing annual growth of more than 25% and multi-billion investments to reduce post-harvest food losses, improve food hygiene and meet the lifestyle demands of the rapidly growing urban middle classes. India alone projects that it needs to spend more than $15 billion on its cold chain over the next five years. Rapidly emerging markets in Asia and South America are all seeing more than 20% year-on-year growth in cold chain. In fact, we estimate growth in global cooling demand to 2030 could equate to three times the current generating capacity of the UK.

Most countries have energy policies covering power, transport and heat, but cooling is largely overlooked. Globally, a large amount of energy is needed to provide cooling and if the projected growth in demand were satisfied using conventional technologies, the cost, carbon emissions and air pollution would be ruinous.

As one example, while truck propulsion engines are tightly regulated in the EU and increasingly clean, secondary engines used to power transport refrigeration units (TRUs) on many trucks and all articulated trailers are effectively unregulated and emit grossly disproportionate amounts of toxic air pollution. Over the course of a year, a modern trailer TRU can emit up to six times as much nitrogen oxides (NOx) and 29 up to times as much particulate matter (PM) as the Euro VI propulsion engine pulling it around. Refrigeration also accounts for around 20% of a truck’s diesel consumption and CO2 emissions.

A report from University of Birmingham earlier this year found that a projected fleet of just 13,000 zero-emission trailers (less than 15% of our total UK fleet) would reduce NOx emissions by the same amount as taking 80,000 Euro VI trucks or 1.2 million Euro VI diesel cars off the road. It would be the PM equivalent of removing 367,000 such trucks from service – more than three times the entire UK articulated truck fleet today – or 2.2 million Euro VI diesel cars.

Currently large amounts of cold are not being harnessed and are going to waste, especially with the re-gasification of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Natural gas is ‘packaged’ in cold to condense it for transport by sea, but the packaging is usually thrown away when it is re-gasified at import terminals. This discarded ‘packaging’ is regarded as waste or stranded cold. Less than 50% of stranded cold is currently used or recycled globally – less than 20% in the UK. Much of the remainder could be recycled to provide zero-emission cooling and power in a wide range of static and mobile applications.
The full potential of a joined up ‘Cold Economy’ is only just beginning to emerge but is evidently huge. The cold given off by the National Grid Isle of Grain LNG terminal over the course of a year would be enough to fuel London’s entire 7,600 strong bus fleet as liquid air ‘heat hybrid’ engines more than six times over. These would reduce emissions by as much as electric hybrids for a fraction of the cost. If we only recycled a fraction of the waste cold, the environmental and economic savings would be significant. On current trends, the world will soon be throwing away a quantity of cold big enough to refrigerate the world’s entire fleet of refrigerated trucks – currently served by highly polluting diesel TRUs.
Sustainable cooling is an urgent global challenge. It is also a new, multi-billion market – and with a portfolio of new technologies moving into demonstration and early deployment, supported by extensive academic research, with the right support, the UK is well-placed to become a world leader, delivering much needed manufacturing jobs. The Midlands is the hub of the activity on cold chain technology in the UK.”

  • Toby Peters has recently been appointed as Visiting Professor of Power & Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham. The position will be hosted within the Birmingham Energy Institute (which sits across the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences and the College of Social Sciences). The centre provides a platform for developing major interdisciplinary projects in energy technology and policy. 

140 academic staff from 4 colleges and 17 schools at the University of Birmingham are engaged in energy and energy related research and development. The Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI) is a focal point for the University and its national and international partners, to create change in the way we deliver, consume and think about energy. The focus being ‘Energy systems’, ‘The Business of Energy’, ‘Energy and Transport’ and ‘Breakthroughs in Energy Technologies’. Co-ordinated research, education and the development of global partnerships is at the heart of the Birmingham Energy Institute vision drawing on recognised centres of excellence in Energy Storage, Nuclear Energy, Fuel Cells and their Fuels, Railway and Automotive Systems and Energy Policy and Economics.

More information about the BEI can be found at