Cooling and refrigeration sector: the Cinderella of the EU’s energy system

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Industrial cooling equipment [Amchiller]

One of the main reasons the cooling and refrigeration sector is under-represented in the EU energy debate is the poor self-organisation of interested stakeholders, given they’re spread out among multiple industrial branches, writes Kostadin Fikiin.

Kostadin Fikiin is R&D Project Manager, Technical University of Sofia.

For non-specialists, artificial cooling (called also refrigeration) is commonly associated with household refrigerators, refrigerated display cabinets in supermarkets, ice rinks or snow-making systems. However, such applications constitute just the small visible fragment of the refrigeration business taking part in countless sectors of the worldwide economy, ranging from food industry to air conditioning and playing a paramount role for healthcare, energy and the environment.

Artificial cold in the global economy

A recent survey of the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR) has revealed a rather impressive number of refrigerating systems currently in operation around the world. For instance, the domestic refrigerators and freezers exceed 1.5 billion; retail refrigeration systems (condensing units, stand-alone equipment and centralised systems) are over 90 million; while the worldwide refrigerated transport consists of over 4 million vehicles (vans, trucks, semi-trailers or trailers) and 1.2 million containers. Air conditioning systems of different types and capacities amount to over 600 million, along with 700 million mobile air-conditioning units on vehicles. Residential, commercial and industrial heat pumps (including reversible air conditioners) exceed 160 million, while the medical applications comprise, for example, more than 25,000 magnetic resonance imaging scanners. The global Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) sector employs at least 110 LNG receiving terminals, 92 liquefaction trains, along with a LNG tanker fleet of 421 vessels. Simultaneously, the refrigeration equipment for leisure and sports includes over 13,500 ice rinks worldwide. Refrigeration and cryogenic technologies play a crucial role for testing fundamental physical theories by using powerful particle accelerators, thermonuclear reactors, etc. Thus, the global annual sales of refrigeration, air-conditioning and heat-pump equipment appears to be roughly €280 billion.

Refrigeration does not have a competitive alternative to maintain the nutritional resources of the planet. To provide safe and wholesome foods, the continuous and ubiquitous impact of low temperatures must be ensured throughout the entire cold chain for perishable food commodities from producers to consumers. Global food output comprises approx. one third of perishable products which require refrigeration. For instance, in the 2010s, out of a total global food production of 6.3 billion tonnes, about 2 billion tonnes required refrigerated processing, but only about 400 million tonnes were effectively preserved in chilled or frozen state. Nowadays, chilling is an indispensable element of almost all post-harvest or post-mortem techniques for handling food commodities of plant or animal origin, while freezing has been established as the paramount commercial method for long-term preservation of the natural quality attributes of perishable foods. In terms of money, the overall cost of all refrigerated foodstuffs around the world is estimated to exceed 3.5 times the USA military budget. Some 552 million cubic meters of refrigerated food storage warehouses are available over the world. In the beginning of 2010s, the annual global production of various frozen foods was about 50 million tons (plus 20 million tons of ice creams and 30 million tons of fish), with a remarkable growth of 10 % every year. FAO estimates that food production should increase globally by 70% to feed an additional 2.3 billion people by 2050, so that refrigeration has a vital role to play in this context.

The refrigeration sector (including air conditioning) accounts for about 17% of the worldwide electricity consumption, thereby determining to a large extent the sustainability of the global economy. The sector creates jobs for almost 12 million employees around the world. About 20% of the global warming impact of refrigeration result from direct leaks of fluorocarbon refrigerants, while 80% are caused by indirect emissions (due to the use of electricity generated by fossil fuels). Environmentally friendly natural refrigerants are increasingly employed, which also offer a means to capture and utilise industrially generated CO2 as a refrigerant or to liquefy it for underground or underwater storage. Refrigeration and heat pump systems are easily prone to enhancing their environmental friendliness by integrating Renewable Energy Sources (RES).

Cooling and refrigeration in the EU energy policy

For years, the EU energy debate and resulting policy have primarily been focused on fuel and electricity related issues. Renewable cooling has been featured in the Renewable Energy Directive as a contributor to the RES target, while the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive includes cooling-related energy calculations. As part of household appliances, domestic fridges are addressed by the Eco-design and Energy Labelling Directives. After the launch of the European Energy Union framework strategy in 2015, the European Commission has initiated in February 2016 a dedicated energy strategy for the Heating and Cooling sectors.

Today, heating and cooling account for half of the EU’s energy consumption. While the current demand for cooling is lower than its heating counterpart, it is going to increase rapidly in the upcoming decades. For instance a 70% increase in the cooling needs of the European building sector is expected by 2030. Although the enormous potential of cooling and refrigeration to help achieve the EU energy targets for diversification, decarbonisation, efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, the public and political awareness of these energy-intensive technologies is still rather insufficient. Most sectorial analyses spotlight heating, whereas cooling is mentioned just pro forma for linguistic symmetry. There is no complete Europe-wide picture of the sector, along with exhaustive data about its energy demand and capacities installed across Europe. In some cases, no competent refrigeration experts are approached to address relevant issues, while preference is given to generalists. Professionals, stakeholders and patriots of the sector are encouraged by the Commission’s initiatives but are still far from satisfied. Cooling and refrigeration are still perceived as “the Cinderella of the EU energy debate“ (a nice metaphor by Professor Toby Peters from the Birmingham & Heriot-Watt Universities).

One of the main reasons for the sector’s underrepresentation is the poor self-organisation of interested stakeholders, being dispersed among multiple industrial branches. There are many European NGOs which represent different fragments and applications of cooling and refrigeration, while IIR is not focusing specifically on EU. To date, there was no a unified authority speaking to the EU’s society with a single voice. There exists an acute need for a professional entity designed to bring together the stakeholders of the European cooling supply and demand sectors and to promote efficient and clean cooling and refrigeration technologies by enhancing the awareness of their importance and increasing the number of research and innovation projects in this field. Branch and national associations, NGOs, industries, academia and research centres should be consolidated for achieving all these objectives. Let’s hope that some latest initiatives (such as the newly established “CoolingEU” forum) will help bridge this gap in the nearest future. Thus, artificial cooling should be considered in more depth by the EU energy policy and its renewable share should become an inherent part of all sustainability enhancing programmes.

Although the sector is “cold” by its nature, it is moved forward by smart scientists, engineers and industrialists with hot hearts. Their noble endeavours should enable the today’s Cinderella to be emancipated shortly and turn into the magnificent princess of tomorrow’s Europe.