We need a warm winter, and a focus on doing 'cold' smarter

As we come to the end of the comprehensive spending review (CSR) and the priorities for the next spending period are set, those for energy remain clear.  

Following the UK's National Grid request, on the 4 November, for extra power generation to cover shortage there remains a pressing need to ensure there is adequate electricity generation. This particular day was rather mild by the seasonal norms and there are concerns that if fears for a cold winter are borne out we could be running close to the margins.

Indeed one news outlet warned “BRITAIN should prepare for the worst winter in half-a-century with advanced weather models now predicting MONTHS of heavy snowfall”! Over the longer term, the growth in demand linked to the electrification of transport and heating will challenge margins further.

This is complex territory, with the variability of the renewable contribution, with the significant investment in wind, the removal of incentives around solar and on-shore wind and the fact that the final investment decision for Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant has yet to be signed. With the decommissioning of coal, much of the emergency generating capacity has been taken by diesel generation, which is far from low carbon and polluting. The need for growth in new gas powered generation is pressing and needs to be a priority as a stop gap while nuclear generation steps up to the plate.

If that was not enough, the challenge around heating, and decarbonisation of heat, is even more significant. About 40% of energy generation is linked to heating with a similar contribution to the carbon emissions – even more than electricity. Here there is no simple, large scale, solution to be found.

There is a need to refit the UK’s rather poor housing stock of 20 million homes with heat generating technology that is low carbon, which hence, ironically, doesn’t exploit gas. Here district heating schemes, heat pumps and potentially fuel cells can play a role. But the retrofit challenge is absolutely enormous. Clear Government policy and incentives are required to facilitate the transition.

As winter approaches it might seem strange to focus on cooling, but it is an essential ingredient of our lives. It ensures that food reaches supermarkets and that data centres function and indeed accounts for 10% of the UKs electricity usage.

Beyond these shores cold and cooling is even more important. For example, 40% of power consumption in countries like India is already associated with air conditioning and in China consumers bought 50 million air conditioning units – equivalent to half the entire US domestic air conditioner fleet – in 2010 alone. The IPCC projects that global air conditioning energy demand will grow 33-fold from 300TWh in 2000 to more than 10,000 TWh in 2100. This is roughly half the total electricity generated worldwide in 2010.

The international market for cooling technology is huge. The recent Birmingham Energy Institute Policy Commission report on “Doing Cold Smarter” identified that this could be greater than £100billion. The need and opportunity for cold and cooling has been much neglected not only in the UK but across Europe and even wider. The solution to growing demand for air conditioning has been to build more electricity generation, rather than doing cooling smarter. In the UK we waste as much cooling power as we presently exploit.

We need to reconsider how cold technology can be properly integrated into the energy system and how the UK can help promote many of the innovative cooling manufacturers, many of them SMEs, such that the enormous international potential can be seized.

In other technology areas, ranging from nuclear fission to bioenergy, the Low Carbon Innovation Co-ordination Group (LCICG) have produced a Technology Innovation Needs Assessment (TINA) which creates an evaluation of the needs and opportunities. Cold is an obvious omission and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency – cold needs a TINA.

As the curtain lifts on the CSR, the fear is that investment in energy and related research and development will emerge as a rather pale image of its former self. However, the need to ensure the future of UK energy is growing ever more important and the opportunity linked to cold and cooling untapped. Courage and vision should not be diluted.

Professor Martin Freer

Head of Physics and Astronomy

Director of the Birmingham Centre of Nuclear Education and Research

Director of the Birmingham Energy Institute (BEI)