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No need to live without the fridge

Andrew Bailey takes on the sandal-wearing brigade, lets off steam over solar cooling, and recalls the coolest industry conference ever

It is said that, in China, the second thing a person wants after a television is a fridge. In recession-hit America, the home of the walk-in refrigerator, it seems they are now heading in the opposite direction.

Sandal-wearing, ponytail-sporting folk have a new obsession: living without a fridge. The idea has taken root in some communities struggling with rising energy costs and, one can imagine, a pricking conscience after years of sitting on the fence over climate change.

The “living without a fridge” movement has spawned television programmes, leading articles and websites – designed to try and wean consumers off their behemoth refrigerators and back to a simpler way of life, based on fresh food and, presumably, warm beer.

However, the movement seems to have come unstuck following a high profile experiment reported in the pages of The New York Times. A group claiming to be living without a refrigerator were, it turns out, using freezers in the basement or ice generating plant running on electricity.

Unless you want to live on a diet of pickled herring, the only way to genuinely live without a fridge is to shop for food every day. That means a daily trip to the store for fresh vegetables, meat and dairy products. I don’t know this for sure, but I would hazard a guess that if the population of the US had to go to the shops every day of the week in their cars, this would put a lot more carbon into the atmosphere than running a fridge.

The important question is not how much energy fridges use. It is how much more energy would be consumed if they did not exist. In terms of efficiency, the best of today’s modern refrigerators is light years ahead of the old rumblers of yesteryear. Which is a lot more than can be said for the typical American car.

Good sandal-wearing folk should change their mantra from “living without a fridge”, to “living with a sensibly-sized and high efficiency fridge”. It’s not revolutionary, but it is progress. And they get to drink cold beer. OK, mineral water.

Out of the frying pan…

It’s proving a long, hot summer for those laid up in hospital down under. We reported last month from Australia where air conditioning in wards is being turned off to save money, while cooling in staff offices continues to whir away.

News reaches us that in New South Wales, one quarter of hospitals are without proper air conditioning. Given the extreme weather conditions affecting that part of the world, it is a surprise that such a developed country has such a backward approach to the care of sick people. There are suggestions that some frail and terminally ill patients are confined to their rooms with only a ceiling fan to cool them.

Things look set to get worse. As the heat wave migrates across the continent towards Sydney, it is anticipated that some 60 hospitals in the west will be without adequate cooling.

For those injured in the fires sweeping the area, it must be a deeply painful irony that time spent recovering in hospital will be blighted by an absence of proper cooling. This is the sharp end of climate change and energy scarcity.

Let the sun shine

The heat wave in Australia has highlighted the fragility of the country’s mains electricity supply during such intense climatic events. As one newspaper put it: “In hot conditions, a blackout is more than an inconvenience that impacts on a local economy. It can mean death for the very young and elderly if they are not able to keep cool.”

As scientists warn that such conditions will happen more often in future, it has reawakened the idea of developing effective solar powered cooling. This is very attractive in principle; it not only harnesses a source of free, zero carbon energy, but the energy source increases in direct proportion to the amount of cooling required at any given moment.

Dr Mike Dennis, a senior research fellow in the Centre for Sustainable Energy, is developing a solar powered air conditioner that does not rely on a conventional electrically-powered compressor, Instead it uses in a solar-powered thermal compressor, which harnesses heat from solar hot water collectors.

Known as ejector cooling, the technology operates using compressed air expanded out of a jet and can harness several kinds of refrigerant, including water. A two-year development program starts this year. The first commercial could be available in 2010.

No approximate price is yet available. But with only one moving part, the researcher predicts that the cost to manufacture the system will be low. If it works, the world will beat a path to his door.