Comment & Analysis

Cooling is Critical Infrastructure

Dr Tim Fox, Professor Toby Peters and Dr Leyla Sayin

Cooling is Critical Infrastructure
Cooling is Critical Infrastructure

In anticipation of publication next week of the UK National Infrastructure Commission’s Second National Infrastructure Assessment, Professor Toby Peters and Dr Leyla Sayin of the Centre for Sustainable Cooling based at the University of Birmingham, together with Dr Tim Fox, IMechE Fellow, offer some thoughts on designating cooling as critical infrastructure.

The European Commission defines ‘Critical Infrastructure’ as an asset or system which is essential for the maintenance of vital societal functions and states that damage to such infrastructure, its destruction or disruption, may have a significant negative impact for the security of the EU and the well-being of its citizens.

Systemic Resilience is a property of an infrastructure system that arises dynamically when the national infrastructure is organised in such a way that it can provide agreed critical services (power, heat, communications channels, mobility services, potable water, and wastewater and waste removal) despite endogenous and/or exogenous hazards, and despite the addition, modification and removal of infrastructure components - Principles for Resilient Infrastructure, UNDRR (2022).

In defining what is critical infrastructure and ensuring its systemic resilience, it is therefore important to first understand the critical service needed, before considering the physical assets that traditionally form the infrastructure system. Cooling is a critical service, as vital as potable water and mobility to our ability to function in the modern world. Without it, we would not have access to safe and nutritious food; the efficacy of medicines and vaccines would be compromised; homes, workplaces and public spaces would be less comfortable for safe living, productive work, effective study, healthcare provision and leisure; and the digital systems that underpin every aspect of contemporary life would be unable to operate. Cooling will become increasingly important to the security and well-being of society as we seek to adapt the way we live and function in response to climate change impacts, particularly higher seasonal ambient temperatures throughout the year and more frequent, prolonged, and intense heatwaves.

Fully understanding the cooling service needed is essential to identifying, shaping, forward planning and deploying the critical infrastructure system components that we require, both physical and non-physical.  This is especially important as we witness radical, disruptive and unforeseen innovations affecting the fundamental way human society operates and we strive to transition economies away from fossil fuel dependency and unsustainable resource consumption. For example, when we think about non-fossil energy in terms of critical infrastructure, we inherently default to considerations of electricity supply and the use of batteries or pumped hydro as a storage media, thereby missing the essential first step of asking the critical service need question before jumping to the physical assets of infrastructure. In fact, the majority of the energy services needed to support a modern society are thermal and delivering them through electricity grids may not be the most sustainable infrastructure solution.

As we transition to renewables and more sustainable resourcing, if an element of the critical service need is to cool a city, should we use a business-as-usual approach of encouraging the autonomous adoption from the marketplace of individual air-conditioning (AC) units that consumers connect to an electricity grid, or instead provide district cooling linked to a thermal heat sink such as the sea, an underground aquifer, a river, or a source of waste cold or waste heat from a collocated infrastructure or industrial process?  Likewise, if we want to take a supermarket’s chiller cabinet off-grid, at times of peak demand, or run a solar-powered vaccine fridge at night in a remote location, should we store the energy in a lithium-ion battery or use ice (or other phase change material)? And, of course, should we use passive cooling and behavioural change to first mitigate the demand for electrically powered mechanical cooling connected to a grid supplying electricity generated using fossil fuels?

Prior to identifying the critical infrastructure system components we require, a substantially more fundamental question must be asked though: what is the future of the critical service need and how do we future proof our response to it?  By mid-Century, societal and demographic change, as well as changes in behavioural norms and cultural expectations, may have driven widespread radical shifts such as work-life balances, attitudes to commuting and working from home, dietary preferences and food procurement practices, and the acceptance of new drugs and vaccines. In the built environment, for example, the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) and a transformation to more flexible, fragmented, and hybrid models of working could fundamentally change the use profile of domestic, commercial, and industrial buildings. Food procurement practices might shift in the next 30 years towards alternative proteins and local sourcing models, in urban areas the latter possibly being partially based on an increase in the vertical farming sector, dramatically altering supply chain needs. In parallel, a shift to a largely e-commerce rather than physical shopping retail model, driven by today’s ‘digital native’ generations maturing into peak purchasing power, could become the societal norm. In the medical domain, widespread acceptance of new vaccine technologies, along with the emergence of future pandemics based on as yet unknown viruses, might drive radical changes in approaches to administering vaccines in delivery programmes, for example including the use of drones as a core element of the logistics chain.

Such societal changes would have profound impacts on the critical service need and thereby the components of the cooling infrastructure system that can most sustainably meet it in a hotter world, not only in terms of physical assets and technologies, but also the financing and business models required. To meet this challenge, deep innovative thinking is urgently needed, to conceptualise, build, test and deploy future proofed cooling. In short, the key to a successful outcome will be to avoid developing, deploying and supporting seemingly well adapted and systemically resilient infrastructure that may become redundant by mid-Century, because the sector, sub-sector, or market disappears (after a substantial amount of human and physical resource has been invested unnecessarily).

Currently, cooling is not considered specifically in the National Infrastructure Commission’s analysis of the UK’s long-term economic infrastructure needs. It should be in future assessments. Cooling is critical infrastructure and for systemic resilience, especially in a hotter world, we must undertake a radical rethink of its provision. Most urgently, we need to start the necessary transformational shift to a more sustainable, well adapted and resilient future by asking the fundamental question: “what are the needs of this critical service and how can we deliver a future proofed critical infrastructure to deliver them?”

This blog builds on Dr Sayin’s James Clayton Lecture “The Hot Reality: Living in a +50°C World” held at the Institution on the evening of 6 September, in association with our landmark 1st International Conference and Workshop on Climate Adaptation and Resilience held in London on the 6 – 8 September 2023.


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