Clean Cooling: Putting Together all the Pieces of the Sustainable Cooling-For-All Puzzle

Over the past five years, three global agreements of immense importance to the future of humanity have been enacted: the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on HFC reduction.

The SDGs, born at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, encompass 17 urgent environmental, political and economic challenges around the world. They were adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at the UN Sustainable Development Summit 2015 in New York City, and went into force in January 2016.

Around that time (December 2015), the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21) was held in Paris, where 196 governments negotiated and drafted the Paris Agreement on climate change; it was signed the following April in New York City, and has been ratified by 189 governments as of June 2020. Its objective: keeping the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution well under 2°C (3.6°F), preferably no greater than 1.5°C (2.7°F).

To support the goals of the Paris Agreement, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was enacted on October 15, 2016, by 198 governments (including the European Union) in Kigali, Rwanda; it took effect on January 1, 2019. The Amendment calls for the phase down of the production and use of HFCs, which are potent greenhouse gases, by developed and developing countries, targeting a roughly 85% reduction compared to baselines by 2047.

While these three global treaties all aim to dramatically improve the environmental, economic and social health of the world during the 21st century, they each go about it in different ways. But there is one, often overlooked, area of overlap that is essential to the realization of all three: cooling or, to be more precise, “Clean Cooling.”

“Clean Cooling sits at the intersection of Paris, Kigali and the SDGs,” said Toby Peters, Professor in Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, U.K., and Co-Director of the Birmingham-based Centre for Sustainable Cooling, who first defined the concept several years ago. He has written extensively about it, including a study called “A Cool World: Defining the Energy Conundrum of Cooling for All.” (See “Meeting the Demand for Cooling in a Warming World,” Accelerate Magazine, July-August 2019.)

Clean Cooling, Peters explained, is the link that shows how the three treaties are not separate entities but are in fact interrelated; moreover, it is the linchpin that “enables you to deliver all three simultaneously,” that is, meeting basic societal needs while protecting the environment, he said.

The criteria for the Global Cooling Prize are fully aligned with the intent of the Clean Cooling definition”

-Iain Campbell, Rocky Mountain Institute

Clean Cooling, which dramatically raises the bar on current norms, is Peters’ call to arms. “If we’re going to hit our targets, we have to challenge the world to be more aggressive,” he said.

The implementation of Clean Cooling would not only help countries achieve the goals of the three major treaties, but in so doing would also deliver what Peters calls “Cooling for All.” Over a billion people now lack adequate access to cooling for food, health and physical well-being, according to Sustainable Energy for All “Chilling Prospects” reports. Moreover, unchecked warming will result by 2070 in 1-3 billion people being “exposed to mean annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today,” said a study, “Future of the human climate niche,” published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The concept of Clean Cooling – as a “gold standard” for sustainable cooling – is currently being refined by Peters and colleagues in concert with shecco, publisher of this website, and in discussion with external experts. Its current definition can be found at Peters expects the definition to evolve over time as cooling solutions and strategies improve.

He stressed that Clean Cooling is an attempt to get beyond “nebulous terms” like sustainable cooling. “I see technologies using refrigerants with a 1,900 GWP, or transport refrigeration running on diesel, called sustainable; they might offer incremental improvements, but they are not sustainable,” he said.

Peters and shecco are also, over the course of 2020, leading a collaborative project to develop a standard Clean Cooling process in effect, a series of questions by which cooling projects can be audited. This process could be employed by a variety of stakeholders, including end users, planners, banks, and governments. They will welcome industry feedback on the definition and standards that are developed.

Iain Campbell, Senior Fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), which developed the Global Cooling Prize, said he agrees that there is a need for a clearer definition of sustainable cooling “that reflects both long-term aspiration while still being in reach, and is a definition that can be applied with rigor and transparency.” The criteria for the Global Cooling Prize “are fully aligned with the intent of the Clean Cooling definition,” he added.

Among the organizations seeking to facilitate the use of efficient cooling in developing countries is the Swiss group BASE (Basel Agency for Sustainable Energy), which is helping companies offer the cooling-as-a-service (CaaS) financing model. Thomas Motmans, Sustainable Energy Finance Specialist for BASE, sees Clean Cooling as aligning with CaaS and other financial instruments.

“A standard for clean cooling resulting from an auditable and certifiable process will be a valuable tool to support financial instruments, as it will support investors building portfolios of sustainable projects to better understand what they are investing in,” said Motmans.

The size of the challenge

If Clean Cooling has an ambitious agenda, it is because the scale of the challenge – achieving all three global treaties – is so immense, noted Peters. The numbers tell the story.

To begin with, “the warming world is adding an estimated 13 to 19 cooling appliances per second, and we could see more than 9.5 billion in use by 2050, up from approximately 3.6 billion today,” Peters said. But in order to deliver access to cooling for all who need it, this number could be closer to 14 billion appliances “without step-change intervention in how we deliver cooling,” he said.

With all of those appliances, and meeting the “cooling needs of all” implied by the 17 SDGs, cooling by itself, without intervention, could account for 17-18Gt CO2e emissions per year at a time when many are targeting net zero. An acceptable cooling number to hit climate targets might be 2Gt, which won’t be possible “unless we massively change how we do cooling,” Peters said, “That’s the size of the problem.”

In terms of energy consumption, delivering cooling for all, while meeting the new demand for air conditioning in developing countries, could rack up an estimated 19,500tWh (terawatt hours) of energy annually by 2050 without mitigation measures, Peters said. However, under the Paris agreement goal of preventing global warming from exceeding 2°C, no more than 6,300tWh or cooling would be acceptable, according to data provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA). (Relying on renewables is not the answer because cooling for all could consume 63%-104% of the total renewable energy generation projections for 2050, Peters added.)

How then to get from 19,500 tWh to 6,300tWh? Peters believes it can only happen through a firm global commitment to Clean Cooling. “In simple terms, we need a step-change intervention to reduce the energy consumption of cooling by 70% by 2050,” he said, “It requires us to radically rethink cooling.”

Achieving the 2050 goal “in reality requires integrated solutions that meet the targets between 2030 and 2040, given the 10-12 year lifespan of cooling equipment,” Peters said. To that end, a room air conditioner that is five times more efficient than conventional models is on the horizon as a result of the Global Cooling Prize, organized by a global coalition led by the Government of India and RMI. Eight finalists who have developed highly efficient AC systems will compete for a US$1 million prize, which will be announced in March 2021.

But Peters, who is a judge for the Global Cooling Prize, stressed the need for “countries to recognize what can be achieved and adopt regulations so that affordable AC units consuming 80% less energy become standard by 2030.”

A Cooling Mosaic

Efficient equipment alone will not be enough to “deliver Paris” and the other global accords, Peters said. That requires Clean Cooling.

Clean Cooling, as it pertains to air conditioning and refrigeration, in both stationary and mobile applications, encompasses a wide array of elements – akin to a mosaic that gives form to many pieces.

In its essence, Clean Cooling is “resilient cooling for all who need it, without environmental damage and climate impact and with the optimal use of natural and thermal resources throughout the lifespan of the cooling system,” Peters said.

But Clean Cooling starts with “a quantitative assessment and understanding of the need for cooling,” he said. For end users of cooling, it means changing the question from “How much electricity do I need?” to “Have I thought about what cooling service I need?” he added. This means considering not only the total cooling load, but also the steps that have been taken to minimize the load, and the available energy resources, before the equipment is even installed. Peters calls this “thinking thermally” – not about how much electricity is needed, but how much cooling.

So it is not enough to install an energy-efficient air conditioning system in a building to achieve Clean Cooling, explained Peters. The building itself needs to be designed to reduce the cooling demand via steps like white roofs, shading and natural ventilation “to mitigate the need for mechanical cooling.” In addition, such a building would seek to instill behavioral or system changes to maintain a “reasonably comfortable temperature” of, say, 24°C-26°C (75°F-79°F) while minimizing room humidity. A computer center would need to leverage “free cooling” during lower ambient temperature periods. A supermarket would need to have doors on all of its coolers, and reclaim the coolers’ waste heat to make hot water.

And then the equipment itself has to be accessible, affordable, financially sustainable, flexible, scalable, targeted, safe and reliable, according to the model definition.

Clean Cooling does not stop at installation. It continues with a committed maintenance program – something often neglected today – to ensure that equipment keeps up peak efficiency, and includes the latest digital monitoring and control systems. It is estimated that upwards of 25% of AC emissions could be cut today via optimization, monitoring and maintenance. But for that to happen, it will be essential to train a sufficient number of technicians to work with natural refrigerants in the latest AC and refrigeration systems.

In addition to offering best-in-class efficiency, Clean Cooling equipment uses refrigerants that have little to no global warming potential (GWP) or wider environmental impacts. That means natural refrigerants (CO2, hydrocarbons, ammonia, water and air) are a fundamental part of Clean Cooling, except in rare and urgent instances where they are not available or can’t be supported by technicians. Over time, as natural refrigeration becomes more mainstream globally, the exception will be dropped.

Clean Cooling also applies to mobile air conditioning (MAC). Like stationary AC, MAC will experience increasing demand as global temperatures rise, to the point where up to 24%-26% of the electrical demand in an electrically powered vehicle used in hot, humid climates could be for cooling by 2050, said Peters. (It is now about 3%-7% of a vehicle’s fuel consumption.) To reduce demand, cars will likely need to be designed with better insulation, along with having more efficient MAC systems, he noted.

Most car manufacturers have switched to R1234yf refrigerant (an HFO), though some, like Daimler, are starting to employ CO2 as the refrigerant.

As with climate change mitigation, natural resource conservation is a byproduct of Clean Cooling. By using cooling to prevent food loss, farmers are able to conserve massive amounts of natural resources like water and land, Peters noted. The efficient use of natural resources in equipment is another mark of Clean Cooling. To that end, it may be better to use ice rather than lithium batteries for cooling energy storage, Peters said.

Clean Cooling is not done inside a social vacuum; it takes into account the basic human needs for food, health and comfort. “So, if you are building a factory, alongside mitigating cooling demand, you check that the staff will be kept safe and productive,” said Peters. In an agricultural setting, Clean Cooling specifically must include cold chains for food and medical needs to meet both SDG and climate targets. This means “integrated, seamless and resilient networks of interconnected refrigerated and temperature – controlled storage, aggregation, distribution and process points, and transport modes.”

Renewables and Other Energy Sources

Energy management is a critical feature of Clean Cooling.

Importantly, energy for Clean Cooling does not need to come from electricity, stressed Peters. It can also be run on low-grade waste energy (absorption chillers), trigeneration (power, heat, cold) or other thermal energy (including. solar). “Waste” cold from liquefied natural gas (LNG) regasification can be used, while geothermal energy, bodies of water and sky cooling can effectively provide free energy for cooling. In hot dry climates, water evaporation is commonly employed for cooling. Likewise, energy can be efficiently and cost-effectively stored in phase-change materials, like ice or even tanks of water, not just batteries.

Indeed, these alternatives will be increasingly required given that cooling (thermal services) is one of the fastest-growing energy sectors, observed Peters. That needs to be recognized, he added, as the global transition to renewables is implemented, and the energy system is designed for a variety of needs, including new services, e-vehicles and e-logistics, intermittent generation, flexible loads, peak energy demands, and multiple energy resources requiring different operating conditions.

Thus, Clean Cooling is cognizant of how communities use cooling, such as when peak demand takes place; it endeavors to alleviate the burden that peak demand places on the power grid (including variable renewable energy generation) by switching to thermal storage, such as blocks of ice created when demand is low. “In many hotter climates, a significant percentage of peak electricity demand is to drive ACs,” noted Peters.

Meeting the challenge of cooling and the transition to renewables simultaneously needs “integrated approaches using bundles of technologies that leverage all energy resources, including untapped synergies between thermal sources and sinks,” said Peters. It will also mean “delivering added value from system optimization, allowing new economic values to be captured, and ensuring resilience and optimized energy management across the transport and built-environment.”

In effect, Clean Cooling calls for holistic thinking that includes, not solely the technological domain, but also energy sources, energy storage, manufacturing strategies, social, ecological and economic considerations, governance, policy, finance, business, education and training, he said. For Peters, this will preclude “sub-optimal solutions due to adopting a siloed business-unit perspective and a lack of understanding of local needs and requirements.”

In short, he said, Clean Cooling calls for a systematic approach to cooling along a value chain with the following elements: planning, making, storing, moving, using, managing and financing cold. He sees this as part of an “interconnected cold eco-system designed for circularity.”

Who Uses Clean Cooling?

Peters foresees Clean Cooling standards being used by a variety of stakeholders, including end users, banks, and governments.

The UN is already asking governments to develop National Cooling Action Plans (NCAP) that meet the needs of communities and contribute to a country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the Paris agreement. However, Peters believes that many NCAPs are failing to assess a country’s total cooling needs. “If you don’t know how much cooling is needed to meet your goals – feed your population, deliver vaccines, keep people safe and productive – then how can you have a robust plan?” he asked.

To assist countries in determining their cooling demand, Edinburgh, U.K.-based Heriot-Watt University, where Peters is a Senior Research Fellow in Transformational Innovation for Sustainability, has recently released a “cooling needs assessment tool,” he said.

In order to fulfill Clean Cooling’s vision of a world with cooling for all, banks and other institutions will need to employ creative solutions, such as CaaS, a pay-as-you-go “servitization” model that eliminates onerous first costs for the end user. “Such a model could be especially helpful to farmers in developing countries with cold-chain equipment, and also help city dwellers pay for more efficient AC units,” noted Peters. District cooling is another scheme that could distribute cooling more economically.

Motmans of BASE said his organization would see a “strong value” in using a Clean Cooling standard to evaluate CaaS projects. “Setting clear standards would motivate cooling users and investors alike to seek ‘clean cooling certified’ CaaS providers, and would motivate the latter to innovate to reach such a standard,” he said.

The CaaS model, added Motmans, incentivizes technology providers to implement Clean Cooling strategies, such as passive cooling, to minimize cooling demand prior to installing the cooling system, and preventive maintenance in order to maximize operating efficiency. “With CaaS, the technology provider has the incentive to implement those strategies that will reduce the life-cycle cost of the plant, because these will reduce the costs to deliver the cooling service to the customer,” he said.

To jumpstart Clean Cooling in India, several projects are underway. For example, a “Centre of Excellence (COE)” in the form of a pack house that will showcase modern refrigeration technologies is being developed in Haryana state, India, to improve and integrate the local cold chain and help reduce food loss. The COE project has broad support and is being undertaken by a part-nership of the AgriTech Sector Team in the U.K. Department for International Trade, the British High Commission India, as well as the Haryana State Government.

In addition, researchers from the University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University have launched a project in India with Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) to help try to engineer an efficient clean cooling COVID-19 vaccine-logistics mechanism.

Banks could employ Clean Cooling standards to force loan applicants to pare the cooling cost of a project. For a building loan, “the first question is, have you mitigated the cooling demand?” said Peters. “Don’t get me to fund an air-conditioning system until it’s the smallest size because you designed the building properly. Then, can you confirm that the AC is at the highest efficiency and the refrigerant is natural? If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.”

The Washington, D.C. (U.S.)-based World Bank, which provides loans and grants to the governments of poorer countries, has embraced the concept of Clean Cooling. Last year, the World Bank announced the Efficient Clean Cooling Programme designed to accelerate the uptake of sustainable cooling solutions (air conditioning, refrigeration and cold chain) in developing countries. Led by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance (ESMAP) and the World Bank’s Climate Change Group, the program received a $3 million grant from the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP) to ensure that efficient, clean cooling is included in investment projects and to mobilize further financing.

The bank also last year announced that it was developing a “roadmap” that will help it look at projects at a “system level,” considering all of the energy and thermal elements.

In promoting Clean Cooling as an aspirational standard for the world, Peters is trying to orchestrate a shift in the way people generally perceive energy. Instead of simply equating energy loads with electricity, they should understand that energy also includes cooling (thermal energy), he believes.

“When we talk about energy, people think electricity and don’t realize that in many countries the biggest growth in energy demand is cooling loads,” he explained. “We need to start thinking thermally. That is the challenge.”

This article, with additional information, originally appeared in issue #110 of Accelerate.