By Chris Beland and Gill Davies
World Refrigeration Day shines a light on the globally important role of refrigeration. Falling on 26 June each year, it reminds us of the value and breadth of services refrigeration enables across the world - from preserving perishable foods to providing access to vaccines and life-saving medicines. However, over a billion people globally still lack access to any form of refrigeration technology.
At Energy Saving Trust, we deliver the Efficiency for Access Research & Development (R&D) Fund funded by UK aid and the IKEA Foundation. It supports projects that design affordable and highly efficient fridges and freezers for under-served consumers. The rationale is clear: access to sustainable cooling is pivotal in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The Efficiency for Access Research & Development Fund aims to accelerate the availability of high quality, affordable and efficient electrical appliances for low-income countries. It allows organisations around the world to undertake research and development in electrical appliance innovation.
Of the 21 organisations the fund has supported so far, 13 focus on developing refrigeration technologies that enable access to cooling services. These projects aim to reach people in off-grid and weak-grid areas (where consumers have access to the grid, but connections are poor).
In the last decade in East Africa, a strong solar home system sector has emerged that capitalises on an 80% reduction in the price of solar PV modules. A new pay as you go business model has also emerged. It enables individuals to put down a deposit, usually around 10%, and then pay for their solar panels and its linked appliances, in more affordable monthly instalments. This gives increased flexibility if people experience fluctuations in income. The grow of this sector has been driven by companies from the UK such as M-KOPA and BBOXX.
The Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund is now helping organisations to develop more advanced energy services such as cooling and cooking that are powered by solar home systems. Investing in technology-led appliance solutions can help make these energy-dependent technologies more affordable. These innovations could also help support the UK’s transition to net-zero.
Cardiff-based Sure Chill received one of the fund’s first grants in April 2019. Since 2008, Sure Chill’s team has been developing a novel water-based refrigeration technology that allows fridges and freezers to maintain low and consistent cavity temperatures during power outages of up to 30 days.
The company initially focussed on vaccination fridges for areas with limited, or intermittent, electricity supply and now it is applying its unique technology to domestic fridges too. The Efficiency for Access R&D grant has helped Sure Chill develop an innovative method of powering domestic fridges via a pay as you go solar home system. In addition to the business model reducing cost barriers, Sure Chill’s technology reduces refrigeration unit prices by eliminating the need for a battery. Instead it relies on thermal energy storage, maintaining cool temperatures in the fridge using the properties of water.
In January this year, Energy Saving Trust colleagues visited Sure Chill’s laboratories. It was exciting to see how the grant is enabling Sure Chill to reduce costs further. For example, a newly developed sensor helps monitor the state of the fridge’s performance at any point in time and allows the fridge to manage how much power it uses and when. Being able to manage its energy consumption patterns benefits the overall system balance. This includes ensuring availability of power for other appliances using the same solar home system , such as solar water pumps, fans and mobile phone charging.
The combination of ice-based thermal storage, accurate sensors and an intelligent management system adds to the potential for this technology in the UK and other on-grid contexts. Storing energy within the refrigeration system itself means that the fridge can use grid electricity selectively, when it is cheap and readily available. As such, it could reduce operating costs in systems of any size, from domestic fridges to chillers in supermarkets and warehouses.
As renewable electricity generation capacity increases in the UK, matching supply and demand in a cost-effective manner will become increasingly important. New technologies such as Sure Chill’s refrigerator can capture and store low carbon energy when it’s readily available but in low demand, then use it as stored energy capacity the rest of the time. Matching demand to supply in this way helps to reduce the overall greenhouse gas emissions from the generation sector.
You can read more about how other projects funded under the Efficiency for Access Research and Development Fund Cooling Call are also pushing refrigeration technology in exciting new directions. Based on Sure Chill’s example, these technologies have huge benefits for off-grid communities in sub-Saharan Africa and can help countries like the UK transition to smarter, more flexible energy systems.