Navigant Research Blog

Refrigeration’s Chilling Effect on Energy Efficiency

— August 6, 2014

China’s meteoric rise has had profound impacts on its economy, people, and environment.  Navigant Research has examined the consequences this growth has on energy used by buildings and cities.   As the country of 1.3 billion becomes more prosperous, the next transformation occurring is in cold storage.  In a recent article, The New York Times Magazine delved into the adoption of refrigeration in China.  On the consumer level, China’s domestic refrigerator ownership has grown from just 7 % in 1995 to 95% in 2007.  As a result, the cold chain (the temperature-controlled storage and distribution infrastructure) is growing as well.

The United States, which leads the world in cold storage, currently has about 3 times the cold storage per capita as China does.  In China, less than one-quarter of meat and 5% of fruits and vegetables travel through a cold chain, compared to about 70% of U.S. food.  As China’s living standards rise, refrigeration and energy use are set to explode.  Currently, cooling accounts for only about 15% of global electricity consumption.

The threat associated with increased living standards is not isolated to China.  An estimated 40% of fruits and vegetables in India are lost to spoilage as a result of poor infrastructure.  Although the Indian economy has not performed as robustly as China’s, there is hope that growth will pick up shortly.  However, with that hope comes the risk of unsustainable energy consumption on a staggering scale, as India and China combined account for more than one-third of the world’s population.  As such, vast advances in the energy efficiency of refrigeration are needed.

Birth of the Cool

Refrigeration, like air conditioning, relies on the vapor compression cycle.  The vapor of a refrigerant is compressed to the point where it is superheated and then travels through a condenser where heat is rejected from the refrigerant vapor and it is condensed into a liquid.  Next, the liquid goes through a throttle valve where it evaporates into a low-temperature, low-pressure mixture of liquid and vapor.  Lastly, this mixture travels through an evaporator that absorbs heat from the space being refrigerated and evaporates the mixture so that it can be compressed and the cycle can start again.

Incremental improvements have been made in the efficiency of refrigeration, but there is a physical limit to how efficient the vapor compression refrigeration cycle can be.  It may be time to rethink the fundamentals of refrigeration.  The U.S. Department of Energy, for instance, has been investigating the use of non-vapor compression technology.  But the answer may not be cooling at all.  Cooling is a means to an end; it is an effective method of inhibiting microbial growth.  But it is not the only method to do so.  Fenugreen FreshPaper uses naturally occurring antimicrobials to keep fruits and vegetables fresher longer – with near-zero energy use.

 

In China, Cars Learn the Roads

— August 5, 2014

Navigant Research’s recent report, Autonomous Vehicles, focused on the activities of large global automakers, Tier One suppliers, and universities and research organizations (including, of course, Google) in Western Europe and North America.  Extensive work is also happening in Japan, and the Japanese automakers are among the companies providing a steady stream of interesting automotive engineering news.

Not so much is heard about what’s going on in China.  The rapid growth in vehicle sales in that country gets most of the headlines, along with the accompanying congestion and air pollution.  But, like Northern California, China also has a tech company that has built its fortune from an Internet search engine and has branched into R&D on self-driving vehicles.  Sometimes referred to as China’s Google, Baidu revealed in July that it’s working on what it calls a highly autonomous car.

Unlike the Google car that famously has no steering wheel or foot pedals, the Baidu concept will be a conventional vehicle with a driver when the first prototypes are shown in 2015, but it will have plenty of intelligence and awareness built in.  The best way to think about it is to consider an earlier form of personal transportation: the horse.  The rider gives instructions about when to start and stop and turn, but the horse knows to avoid obstacles and dangerous situations and can learn familiar routes and navigate itself through traffic.  This is a very different approach to the Google model, which requires highly detailed digital maps of every road before it can venture out.

Affordable Autonomy

The only other developer I have heard contemplating this approach is the Australian startup Zoox, which I mentioned in a previous blog.  Baidu is also reportedly working on a driverless bicycle that will be able to deliver packages as well as provide mobility to those unable to drive.  A prototype is slated for demonstration by the end of this year.

The Chinese approach is an interesting alternative to the high-tech and likely high-cost options for self-driving being developed in the rest of the world.  One of the keys to success in the mass market is affordability.  Another obstacle to the rollout of autonomous driving, in the West, is legislation.  In China, the government can act very quickly to support the modification of laws to allow driverless vehicles to operate on public roads if it deems the technology ready and the benefits are clear.

Chinese car makers have struggled to break into Western markets, typically finding it difficult to meet the extensive crash safety specifications required in the European Union and the United States.  They’ve had more success exporting to other countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.  In all these regions, getting permission to offer semi-autonomous vehicles could prove relatively easy, and the potential benefits for safety and traffic flow are even bigger than they are in the high-profile Western countries.

 

Urban Population Growth Drives the Need for Smart Cities

— July 15, 2014

The latest update from the United Nations on global urbanization trends is a powerful reminder of the most important of all drivers for smart city development: population growth.  World Urbanization Prospects, the 2014 revision reaffirms the core findings of previous studies but also further highlights the dramatic changes that will occur over the next 3 decades.

Today, the world’s urban population is close to 3.9 billion.  It will reach 6.3 billion in 2050, by which time two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities.   Nearly 90% of the increase in urban population will occur in Africa and Asia, and three countries alone – China, India, and Nigeria – will account for 37% of the 2.5 billion new urban dwellers.  Although more than half of the world’s urban citizens live in Asia today, the continent is only 48% urbanized and only 40% of Africans live in cities.  By 2050, Africa will be 54% urbanized and Asia will have reached 64%.

Percentage of Population in Urban Areas: 1950-2050

(Source: United Nations)

China and India Focus on Urban Infrastructure

China’s response to these pressures has been well-publicized.  The central government plans to invest up to $1 trillion in urban infrastructure during the 12th Five-Year Plan.  China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban and Rural Development (MOHURD) is currently assessing plans from 193 cities that are competing for up to $70 billion in investment to smart city development programs. In March 2014, the Ministry of Finance released details about the National New-type Urbanization Plan (2014-2020).  The government has stated a desire to develop a more inclusive path to urbanization that will benefit more citizens, improve the quality of life, and reduce the environmental impact of new developments.

India has taken longer than China to embrace urbanization as part of national policy.  As a result, despite the rapid growth of cities, like Mumbai and Delhi, and the global role of Indian technology suppliers, investment in the urban infrastructure has lagged economic development.  After decades of attempts to hold back the tide in favor of the traditional role of rural communities, there is a now a greater focus on the needs of the expanding urban population.

100 New Cities

India’s main smart city initiative to date has been the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC).  The development is intended to spur manufacturing and urbanization across a broad swath of northern India, with seven new cities planned and a total investment of $90 billion.  The new Indian government elected in May 2014 has put urban development at the core of its program and declared a target of building 100 new cities by 2022.  It has allocated around $1 billion for the program in its first budget.   According to M. Venkaiah Naidu, the new urban development minister, the planned cities will employ the latest technology and infrastructure, including advanced waste management and transportation systems.

The vast expansion in the urban population and growing expectations among city dwellers for better quality services and infrastructure will drive demand for smart city solutions across Asia Pacific over the next decade.  Navigant Research’s latest Smart Cities report estimates that a total of $63 billion will be invested in smart city technologies in Asia Pacific between 2014 and 2013, more than one-third of a global investment of almost $175 billion.

 

China’s Coming Property Crash

— June 6, 2014

The sheer magnitude of building growth in China has been remarkable.  According to the Financial Times, China produced more cement in just 2 years, 2011 and 2012, than the United States produced in the entire 20th century.  China’s unprecedented urbanization has resulted in hundreds of millions of migrants flocking to China’s cities to manufacture the country’s exports and build its infrastructure.  This, in turn, has driven an unsustainable combination of a gravity-defying growth in construction coupled with rapidly rising housing prices.   If China is indeed in a property bubble, the correction could be painful.

Concerns about a Chinese property bubble were raised as early as 2010.  Ordos, a city in Inner Mongolia, undertook an ambitious project to develop a 12-square-mile area of empty land outside of the city into a thriving metropolis.  Rather than a thriving metropolis, the $1 billion project resulted in a ghost town when the project failed to attract residents.  In early 2011, when banks tightened credit, coal companies, upon which the resource-rich city depended, consolidated.  As a result, property sales stalled, precipitating a collapse in prices.  Ordos wasn’t the only casualty.  Several other major cities throughout China experienced price declines, leading many, including The Wall Street Journal, to declare the end of the property bubble in China to be imminent.

Impact on Smart Buildings

Indeed, prices did retreat in 2011.  But rather than burst, they rebounded, buoyed by sustained demand in China’s top cities.  But recent weakness in Chinese economic indicators has again raised concerns of a burst.  Economists at the Japanese bank Nomura have declared, “it is no longer a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘how severe’ the property market correction will be.”  Newly started construction for the first 4 months of 2014 is down 22.1% compared to a year earlier.  Even Pan Shiyi, a real estate tycoon and chief of Soho China, thinks China’s property market is headed for catastrophe.

The exceptional growth of construction in China has been a strong driver of building controls and automation in recent years.  A property bubble burst could, therefore, have disastrous consequences on the market for smart building technologies.  However, if there is softness in the Chinese market, no one seems to have informed the leading global manufacturers of building controls.  Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Schneider Electric, and Siemens have all reported a continued strong market in China for the first quarter of this year.

A Series of Collapses

Part of the story is momentum.  A collapse in construction activity will lag a collapse in land and property prices.  Controls equipment manufacturers may even lag behind construction activity.  Also, although indications of a plunge in construction prices are strong, it hasn’t occurred yet.  China has been in the position of having economic data pointing to it being on the cusp of a property bubble burst before.  Its chronic oversupply and perpetually buoyant prices may be unsustainable, but the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

When the burst does come, advanced controls may prove to be more resilient than the overall market.  China has a significant proportion of aging buildings.  If the country is to reach the energy efficiency goals laid out in the 12th Five-Year Plan, advanced controls will need to be part of the equation.  Those aging buildings will be prime candidates (and great revenue sources) for energy efficient retrofits.

 

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