What does a 'cold economy' mean for climate change?

Researchers say the world needs to rethink the energy supply chain to include what they call a 'cold economy,' as reliance on air conditioning and refrigeration soars.

Josh Armstrong/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A heat wave means high demand on air conditioners in Boston, Mass., in July, 2005.

By the middle of this century, people will use more energy for cooling than heating, marking a shift in temperature control that could expedite global warming.

Given this, researchers at England's University of Birmingham say the world needs to rethink the energy supply chain to include what they call a "cold economy" – that is, an energy market that has a low-carbon, zero-emission cooling, and power supply. 

“Most people tend to think of energy in terms of heat and light and transport,” said Toby Peters, visiting professor of power and the cold economy at the University of Birmingham in an interview with The Guardian. “But more and more, it’s going to be about cold. Demand for cold is already huge, it’s growing fast, and we’re meeting it in basically the same way we’ve been doing for a century. Cold is the Cinderella of the energy debate. If we don’t change the way we do it, the consequences are going to be dramatic.”

Professor Peters, who co-authored a report on the cold economy that will be published by the Birmingham University policy commission on Wednesday, acknowledges that “we need cooling, and we need it globally," but he questions if the necessity for cold means getting air conditioning and refrigeration directly from the electric grid.

One solution, he says, is to utilize off-peak renewable energy, like wind, by capturing the surplus energy and deriving new ways to store it.

The Guardian reports energy consumption for just air conditioning is anticipated to increase 33 times by 2100. In the United States alone, two-thirds of all households already have air conditioners, according to the US Department of Energy, which estimates air conditioners "use about 5 percent of all the electricity produced in the United States, at an annual cost of more than $11 billion to homeowners."

The cost to the environment, according to the agency, is about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide put into the air annually, or put another way, about two tons for each home with an air conditioner on average. 

The emissions, and the reliance on fossil fuels to generate cooling, combined with the rise in global demand means the climate talks in Paris at the end of November may be moot. 

Part of the Birmingham researchers' solution in the new cold economy is to use off-peak renewable energy – that is, surplus wind or solar power when demand is low, like during the workday or the middle of the night – to create storage for the growing demand on cooling, which Peters says is already being done to great effect for heating supplies.

One place where this idea may take hold is in California, where the weather is warm, energy regulators are leading the way for the rest of the US, and the use of off-peak energy could soon be incentivized by lawmakers. 

The state is already about to mandate half of its electricity to come from renewable sources by the year 2030, Scientific American reports, and now a new rate structure will encourage customers to change their demand. A lower price on solar utility during off-peak times will lessen California's dependence on backup fossil fuel power plants or energy storage in the future, according to the science publication.

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