The US and China have agreed to work together to phase out the use of HFCs (hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants) by 2030. This is the biggest news for the HVACR industry since the Montreal Protocol. It could mark the beginning of the end of the production of fluorocarbon refrigerants. Everybody wins, excepting the manufacturers of fluorocarbon refrigerants, because the alternative refrigerants are more energy efficient, lower cost and have very low global warming potential.
For the general public this means that refrigerators and air conditioning will cost less to run and repair. But it also means that that everything we buy that uses refrigeration or air conditioning (HVACR) will in time become lower cost because the new HVACR technology and equipment will be more efficient. That’s just about everything. It is commonly reported that the HVACR energy use in the built environment is over 50% of its total energy use and Greenhouse Gas emissions. The same is true for industries like food production and distribution, and many other industries.
This result flows from the fact that most current HVACR technology uses HFC refrigerants that are not energy efficient and the refrigerants themselves are expensive. The alternative refrigerants, commonly known as natural refrigerants are lower cost and energy efficient. The agreement between the US and China calls for the two countries to work together to phase down the use of HFC refrigerants because they have a very high global warming potential, between 1000 and 20,000 times carbon dioxide depending on the particular refrigerant.
Their objective is to reduce global warming and increase energy efficiency. Your benefit is lower HVACR cost.
It is all a little hard to follow because of the various international agreements like the Montreal Protocol and Kyoto Protocol but the bottom line is that HVACR equipment that uses natural refrigerants are more efficient.
1. The Montreal Protocol currently calls for the phase out of ozone depleting refrigerants (CFCs and HCFCs) by 2020 in the industrialised world (2016 in Australia) and by 2030 in developing countries.
2. The replacement refrigerants, HFCs, have largely replaced these refrigerants but have high Global Warming Potential (GWP). If not phased out HFCs will be a major source of global warming – some reports say as much as 19% of global GHG emissions by 2050.
3. The phase down of HFCs in parallel with the Montreal Protocol refrigerants by 2030 means there will be virtually no fluorocarbon refrigerants available thereafter unless the fluorocarbon manufacturers come up with a low GWP refrigerant that is cost effective.
4. The alternative refrigerants, commonly known as natural refrigerants, are more energy efficient, have low to no GWP and are low cost. They are in use worldwide. For instance there are reported to be 700 M refrigerators in use worldwide that use natural refrigerants. For instance the Consumer Goods Forum comprised of 400 leading food retailers and food suppliers has declared their intention to transition to natural refrigerants because they are energy efficient and environmentally preferable. There are natural refrigerant solutions available in all HVACR sectors.
5. Manufacturers of low global warming fluorocarbon refrigerants have yet to produce low GWP fluorocarbon refrigerants that are competitive on a life cycle cost basis. The low GWP fluorocarbon refrigerants produced to date are subject to significant safety risks.
The implications are important.
There is an estimated 43 million individual installations of HVACR equipment in Australia. All HVACR equipment use refrigerants. Most use HFC or HCFC refrigerants, albeit there is significant natural refrigerant use in some sectors. To a large extent HVACR equipment is designed to use a particular refrigerant and refrigerants are designed to be used in particular equipment. They all leak refrigerants to some extent. The vast majority will have to be replaced by 2030 because in the absence of fluorocarbon refrigerants they will not be able to be recharged.
That means pretty much every building and home and a very large number of manufacturing and distribution centers will have to replace their HVACR equipment with new equipment or have the equipment retrofit to accept the alternative refrigerants. Yes retrofitting can be done safely by trained professionals.
You can bet there will be vociferous complaints. The 20,000 firms that supply HVACR equipment and services in Australia will have to transition to new technology – natural refrigerant based technology.
Many organisations that supply or use fluorocarbon refrigerants in Australia will say natural refrigerants are not safe. This is not true. The fact is that all refrigerants must be handled with care by a trained professional.
There have been safety incidents involving all kinds of refrigerants. The number of safety incidents in the HVACR industry is low and virtually all incidents have been the result of poor practices rather than safety risks that are directly attributable to the refrigerant itself. There are recognised engineering solutions that make natural refrigerants safe to use.
But the real importance of the USA, China agreement is that it is highly likely that all Montreal Protocol signatories, virtually all countries, will adopt the policy of phasing out HFCs in parallel with the phase out of HCFCs. The cost of HVACR operations worldwide will be reduced dramatically worldwide and the Greenhouse Gas emissions of HVACR services will be dramatically reduced.
For the average consumer this means lower cost refrigeration and air conditioning throughout the entire economy. For the HVACR industry it means a major new source of business development that is cost justified. For the HVACR industry it means a major program to train HVACR trades people in the use of natural refrigerants. For government it means working with the industry to plan a relatively rapid transition to a low cost, low emissions HVACR industry.
For the environmental assessment industry it means getting serious about understanding and managing the transition to natural refrigerant based HVACR technology – that means the GBCA et al.
Congratulations President Obama and Premier Xi Chiang.
I have provided other notes that describe the impact of the HVACR industry in Australia. For instance: the fact that fluorocarbon refrigerant emissions are grossly under reported, the fact that fluorocarbon refrigerant based technology is energy inefficient such that the GHG emissions of the industry are about 11% of national emissions, the fact that no one has very been prosecuted under the OPSGG Management Act.
Tim Edwards is President of the Australian Refrigeration Association