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Industry Insight: The heat is on – how advanced technologies can meet the need for more energy-efficient cooling during the summer months

With much of Europe basking in a prolonged period of glorious weather, the challenge to keep cool has become something of an obsession. Across nations, air conditioning units have been turned up to the max, as homes, offices and public buildings offer a degree of respite from the sweltering temperatures outside.

This response to the hot weather is having a marked impact on energy usage. Cooling demand from households and businesses spikes dramatically during the summer months, and it accounts for a significant percentage of Europe-wide energy consumption. This is not good news from an environmental point of view, as European Union statistics show that 84% of cooling is supplied by fossil fuel generation, with only 16% coming from green sources.

But it’s not just hot weather that underpins cooling demand. Even in temperate countries like the UK, cooling is everywhere and is vital to many aspects of modern life. The food supply sector relies overwhelmingly on a seamless ‘cold chain’ of refrigerated warehouses and vehicles that stretch from the farm gate to the factory, and through to supermarkets. According to industry body CoolingEU, around 70% of foods are chilled or frozen when produced, and 50% are retailed using refrigerated display.

Cold chains are also vital for the safe supply of vaccines. And they are essential for producing chemicals and plastics, and for gas production for steelmaking and other industrial processes.

Data centres are also a fast-growing source of energy demand with almost half of a data centre’s electricity spent on cooling. In the UK, data centres consume 2-3% of the electricity supply – and this figure is rising year-on-year. Global data centre power consumption quadrupled between 2007 and 2013 to 43GW.

It’s crucial, then, that efforts are made to cut the energy consumed through temperature control in buildings and industry. This is being done in several ways, including the use of high-performance insulation materials when renovating buildings. Energy can also be saved by upgrading heating and cooling equipment such as boilers to the most efficient technologies, including biomass boilers and solar heating systems. In industry, energy for heating and cooling can also be saved through the use of energy-efficient technologies such as combined heat and power units, and via advanced energy management solutions with smarter control technologies.  

But arguably the greatest opportunity for energy saving in temperature control comes with the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). We’ve already seen the introduction of disruptive technologies such as the Nest learning thermostat in domestic settings, but IoT has the potential to revolutionise the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) industry in many other ways. Inter-connected technologies based on advanced sensors will be able to monitor conditions continually to ensure optimum performance. Indeed, truly intelligent systems won’t even require human control, they will be capable of adapting to their surroundings, measuring factors such as temperature, humidity and air-flow on a real-time basis, and adjusting settings accordingly. IoT-enabled systems will also be able to monitor the performance of key parts and components, so that HVAC equipment performs to optimum energy-efficiency levels, enabling building services technicians to employ more responsive predictive maintenance regimes.

Ultimately, as climate change impacts weather patterns across the world, more countries will be forced to grapple with the problem of rising cooling demands. That makes the development of these energy-efficient technologies more important than ever before.

Author: Lee Hibbert, Industry Analyst and Content Director, Technical Publicity (Editor of Professional Engineering, February 2010 - January 2016)

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