A closer look at the latest innovations for cooling our homes and whether they’re needed in the UK
Last month, the UK Government published its UK Hydrogen Strategy, setting out its ambitions to produce 5GW of ‘green’ hydrogen to heat our homes. We recently took a closer look at the potential for hydrogen to become a viable sustainable alternative to heating our homes.
In this blog post, we take look at our energy problem from another perspective – how can we cool our homes sustainably?
With our bracing British climate, we’re far more familiar with the conversations around needing to heat our homes sustainably. But with heatwaves like the one experienced in July 2021 happening more often, we can be sure that this question is climbing the agenda.
What is the problem with conventional cooling systems?
We’re all too aware of the environmental impact of air travel and its significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The extravagant nature of our penchant for overseas adventures is extensively talked about in the media, as this article demonstrates.
But, astonishingly, as the UN Environment Programme highlights, conventional cooling devices such as refrigerators and air conditioners account for as much as 10% of all global greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s more than twice the emissions generated from aviation and maritime combined.
The UNEP report explains the vicious cycle that’s happening:
“As the world gets hotter, increased demand for cooling drives up levels of greenhouse gas emissions that, in turn, drive up temperatures and make access to cooling even more critical, all while endangering human safety and livelihoods.”
With our expertise in sustainable building services design, combined with GLD founder Laura Dunlop’s training at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Fuel Cell Innovation Centre, we have a passion for clean power and share a sense of immediacy about the need to bring renewable energy into the mainstream.
So, what can be done to keep our homes cool sustainably?Switch energy supplier
The first step – and one of the biggest impacts we as individuals can have – is to switch energy suppliers. And, beyond the impact that this will have on your carbon footprint, choosing a company in the renewable energy sector over one still flogging non-renewables is a powerful way of influencing the market.
Design our homes better
The construction industry needs to be more innovative in the way it designs new homes. Orientation, building materials, glazing and natural ventilation can all make a big difference to how much a building heats up before you have to think about cooling it down.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as making sure you can open the windows. The technical solution is not always the right one. We know how to take a design and sense check it to make sure you’re building something that will work for everyone – and keep everyone cool.
On the back of the Future Homes Standard consultation, the Government announced plans in January to set rigorous new energy standards to lower energy consumption through several measures, including requiring new homes to be designed to improve energy performance. It’s encouraging to hear these commitments, but we must continue to keep pressure on the Government and the wider industry to ensure targets are met.
Use innovative technologiesThermoelectric cooling
Innovation within our industry has the potential to provide novel cooling solutions that are carbon-friendly.
Thermoelectric cooling is the latest technological solution to heating and cooling. It uses an electrical current flowing through the junction of two different types of conductors to achieve a temperature rise or drop: a concept called the Peltier effect.
The technology used in thermoelectric cooling devices is significantly more efficient than in traditional compressor-based HVAC cooling systems, using less electricity and without the need for polluting liquid refrigerants.
It’s cleaner, quieter and more efficient.
This technology is already enjoying a pilot in Singapore where it was deployed by Phononic, a global leader in thermoelectric solutions. Using their OACIS technology, they deployed their devices to three outdoor locations in the city: at a waterpark, a cluster of restaurants and a swelteringly hot parking garage.
Is Thermoelectric cooling the technology we need?
So, is thermoelectric heating going to be a viable home cooling technology? While it’s an exciting technology, big questions remain over whether it will be a viable option at the domestic level as a means of cooling the home.
The technology is effective and reasonably priced when applied to small appliances like fridges and coolers. The problem seems to be that it tends to get very expensive when applied to large spaces. Perhaps the drive to innovate more cost-effective variants makes sense in countries where temperatures are frequently at the extreme, but in countries like the UK, this kind of research is rightly quite low on our list of priorities.
District cooling plants
District cooling plants send cold water across a network to cool buildings down, reducing reliance on traditional air conditioning units. They significantly reduce CO2 emissions, use less harmful chemicals and also use relatively less energy to achieve the needed temperatures. In some places, cooling can be done passively, through using sea or river water. They are already common in the Middle East and Scandinavia, either down to necessity (the Middle East) or down to governments choosing to tax non-renewable energy sources at high rates (Scandinavia).
A bonus of the district cooling plants is that they can also provide sustainable heating as well as cooling solutions, as it does at Sweden’s MAX IV accelerator and physics laboratory.
Whether district cooling has a future in UK infrastructure will depend on how big a need there is for it going forward. There are small pockets of district cooling, like this project at Kings Cross, but on the whole, there isn’t a huge amount of momentum for it in this country.
Does the UK require a technological revolution in its cooling systems?
An important question to ask ourselves is this: Is excessive heat a big enough problem in the UK to warrant a push for new cooling technology? The fact is, the UK is not a country known for its temperate conditions. Far from it, the Great British Summer is about as reliable as your morning train.
Are the few days of sweltering heat we get every year or two worth the upheaval? Shouldn’t we, to some degree, just suck it up and make do? An obvious consideration is the gradual warming our planet is undergoing. Heatwaves are touted to be a more regular occurrence. Should this hold any sway over our decision?
It may be that some level of compromise is needed to find the best solution. While it might not make practical sense to revamp our infrastructure to introduce new cooling technology, it would at least make sense to build new homes in a way that, as we discussed earlier, better protect us from excessive heat.
Additionally, we could think about cooling solutions on a smaller, more personal level. Just as we throw on a warm jumper in the winter, perhaps we should also make use of things like cooling mats, chairs and clothes in the summer. If you’ve got a dog or a cat you’ll already be familiar with the concept of the cooling mat. Perhaps it’s time to start innovating on a viable product for human use.
Where does that leave us?
The projects in Scandinavia and the Middle East show us that these more environmentally-friendly options are entirely possible when it comes to cooling solutions. If there is a political will and an urgent need for this kind of infrastructure, there are good options available.
It’s all a matter of a cost to benefit analysis. As far as the UK is concerned, there probably isn’t an urgent need on a domestic level for this kind of cooling infrastructure. As discussed, a better approach would be to change the way we build our houses and to take a personal approach to staying cool during the rare beast that is the Great British heatwave.
All this means developers will play a key role and can lead the way with building methods that can make houses heat resilient.
On an industrial level, there may be certain institutions that require a stable temperature for their work. Additionally, there may be equipment or materials that need to be cooled to function safely and effectively. In these settings, there could be a good argument for the small-scale roll-out of some of the technology discussed, as indeed is the case at MAX IV accelerator in Sweden.
However, it doesn’t seem to make sense for our homes just yet.
If you’re looking to keep one step ahead of the Government’s legislation, or need advice on how to keep your next development cool, get in touch with us today.