A Perspective on the Regulatory Phase-out of HFC Refrigerants and the Inherent Lack of Regard for Energy Efficiency
In Brent Harris’ New York Times OpEd piece, “A Coolant That Threatens to Heat Up the Climate”, published on July 22, 2016, the author has been somewhat inaccurate and misleading in his analysis of HFC refrigerants and their contribution to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. There is currently an active effort by the world’s regulatory bodies to phase-out HFC refrigerants used in the bulk of commercial HVAC and refrigeration systems in favor of low GWP (Global Warming Potential) refrigerant alternatives which tend to be flammable and typically associated with expensive new equipment. The missing part of the argument is the inherent energy efficiency of these low-GWP refrigerants.
While innovation has been able to inch down GWP it’s been at the sacrifice of energy efficiency and with increased flammability to meet these GWP-driven policy requirements. GWP is only one piece of the puzzle in measuring the overall impact to GHG, and it’s a very minor one. It is critical for the public to understand that when regulators call out an HFC’s potential impact on overall GHG emissions they always reference its GWP which only measures the impact of a rare leakage into the atmosphere – accounting for just 5%-10% of its overall GHG impact. The GWP number does not take into account the much larger impact to GHG associated with carbon dioxide from electricity generation, which is typically 90-95% of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Bottom line: If a new low-GWP refrigerant is not at least 95% as energy efficient as the high-GWP refrigerant it is replacing, then it is actually increasing the overall GHG impact.
As always it’s about following the money trail and in the case of low GWP initiatives the buck stops with two companies: DuPont and Honeywell. This monopoly has made investments to drive the low-GWP agenda and are about to charge many times historical rates. If the environmental regulators and NGO bodies are to stay true to their mission, they must utilize a comprehensive metric such as “F-GWP” or Functional Global Warming Potential which would consider both the energy efficiency attributes as well as the much less impactful environmental attributes of refrigerants into consideration. The EPA within the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) states it beautifully:
The total environmental effects impacts [sic] of these refrigerants also depend upon the energy use of appliances, since the “indirect” GHG emissions associated with electricity consumption typically exceed those from refrigerants over the full lifecycle of refrigerant-containing products. If appliances designed to use refrigerants listed as acceptable in this final rule are less energy efficient than the appliances they replace, then it is possible that these appliances would result in higher lifecycle GHG emissions than appliances using a higher GWP refrigerant or refrigerant substitute. Conversely, higher energy efficiency of these appliances would lead to even lower lifecycle GHG emissions.
Within the EPA’s own website, they share a graph that demonstrates carbon dioxide’s impact on GHG with the generation of electricity being by far the highest contributor.
Let’s pose a question: What if we could bring down a refrigerant’s GWP while also reducing energy consumption? Indeed, we need a double-edged sword to win the global warming challenge; not a butter knife. Innovation has been underway with entrepreneurial enterprises focusing on energy efficiency solutions that meet evolving environmental standards. These organizations’ products should be given government trials, early adoption, additional R&D funds, access to testing centers, and go-to-market capital rather than being frozen out of a market that is hungry for competitively priced alternatives instead of capital intense new equipment or monopoly priced replacements that meet a false criteria masked by an environmental initiative.
As industry leaders, environmental guardians, and as consumers, we need to agree that an isolated number measuring just 5+/-% of a refrigerant’s total GHG, in and of itself, does not provide the full story of a refrigerant’s impact, worth, or value within the marketplace.