This start-up is putting commercial air conditioning on ice to cool global warming

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Andrea Willige, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • A large share of peak electricity demand in the energy grid is driven by air conditioning, especially in hot climates, set to become a top driver for global energy demand in the next 30 years.
  • The energy-storing capabilities of ice could provide a more efficient, climate-friendly approach to cooling.
  • Thermal energy storage like this can also address the need for storing surplus renewable energy to balance out the grid at times of peak demand.
  • Applications range from district heating and cooling to power generation.

The cooling properties of ice don’t need to be explained. But did you know that ice can store energy and help companies reduce their carbon footprint in the process?

A huge portion of the peak demand in the energy grid is driven by air conditioning, especially in hot climates. Energy use for cooling buildings has doubled over the past two decades, with warmer temperatures being one of the main drivers, according to the International Energy Agency.

Air conditioners and electric fans account for around a fifth of total energy consumption in buildings. This equates to a tenth of all global electricity consumption. In the next three decades, air conditioning is set to advance to one of the top drivers for global energy demand – not just in hot countries – such as China and India – but also in the rest of the world.

Most of this energy is sucked up by chillers, which cool down the water and pump it through the building to lower temperatures. It’s a highly energy-intensive process, making a big dent in our ability to reduce energy usage and carbon emissions.

The energy-storing capabilities of ice could provide a more efficient, climate-friendly approach to cooling with the help of thermal energy storage.

this chart shows how demand for air conditioning is growing globally
How demand for air conditioning is growing globally. Image: International Energy Agency

Putting space cooling ‘on ice’

This is the premise behind start-up Nostromo’s ‘Icebrick’ technology, which promises to cut the environmental and financial cost of air conditioning for large commercial buildings.

The idea is simple: the Icebrick converts water to ice using electricity at times of low demand, for example at nighttime, or when there is a surplus of electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind farms. During the day, it discharges the energy by melting the ice and pumping the cold water through the building until temperatures drop in the evening.

In this way, it not only relieves the electricity grid from the intense energy demands of air conditioning and lowers electricity costs for building owners, but it also offers a storage solution for excess renewable energy that would otherwise go unused.

Storing surplus renewable energy is critical for balancing out the intermittent nature of renewables and one of the biggest challenges on the road to reaching net-zero emissions and halting climate change.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Renewable energy storage needs a boost

Making renewable energy dispatchable – which means easy to access on the grid, even when there is not enough sun or wind – is critical for maintaining energy security and flexibility. It also means that we can rely much more on renewable energy, where we currently still need backup power sources we can easily turn on and off to accommodate peaks in energy demand.

Batteries are the obvious choice for storing surplus electricity generated at times of low demand and tapping it up when demand peaks. But they cannot stand on their own. This is why the IEA, in its 2050 roadmap, has stressed the need to accelerate the development and commercialization of other forms of energy storage.

One of these is ‘Power to X’: technologies that use surplus electricity at times of low demand for example to generate green hydrogen for industry and transportation, or, as in this case, thermal energy storage (TES).

a diagram showing the applications of thermal energy storage
Applications of thermal energy storage. Image: International Renewable Energy Agency, November 2020

Source: International Renewable Energy Agency, November 2020

Scaling energy storage solutions

Nostromo’s Icebrick is not the only solution in this area, reflecting the multitude of efforts underway to resolve the energy storage challenge. TES solutions cover both heating and cooling media as interim repositories for electricity.

Nor is the application of the technology limited to commercial buildings. TES can be used in district heating and cooling, in the transportation of chilled or frozen products (cold chain) and in solar power generation, where molten-salt storage is already commonly deployed.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) has stressed the need for more investment in developing thermal energy storage technology and for measures to boost the market for these solutions.

The World Economic Forum is contributing to these efforts via its UpLink platform’s dedicated stream for new technology innovation to accelerate the transition to clean energy through grassroots innovation and partnership.

But developing thermal energy storage will only be one side of the coin: the bigger challenge will be to ready new technologies such as this so that they can be deployed at scale, and rapidly, to counter climate change.

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