A Perspective On The Confusion, The Reality And What It Means To Industry
Over the last weekend, representatives from over 170 countries negotiated the next phase of accords to reduce the population’s effect on climate change. In Coral Davenport’s article “Nations, Fighting Powerful Refrigerant That Warms Planet, Reach Landmark Deal”, on October 15, 2016, New York Times, the author shares the pinpoint focus the Kigali talks had on specifically reducing the use of hydrofluorocarbons aka HFCs.
NOTE: Before going further, we apologize for the crazy number of acronyms. It is what it is!
The new HFC refrigerant mandates are going to force innovation throughout the HVAC and Refrigeration industries but the Trillion-dollar question is, “Will the focus be properly placed on reducing overall Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions or is the emphasis simply on reducing the impact refrigerants have when they leak into the atmosphere – known as their Global Warming Potential (GWP)?” We certainly hope it will be on both, however, the global community needs to prioritize their efforts on the primary cause of GHG emissions by refrigerants – their colossal use of electricity. HVAC-R systems consume nearly 40% of the world’s electricity.
Emissions from the leakage of current refrigerants account for only 5% – 10% of their overall GHG impact. Electricity generation to power the HVAC-R equipment accounts for 90 – 95% of their total GHG emissions. Unfortunately, all of the talk and excitement about the so-called HFC phase down is entirely centered on the 5%-10% leakage component and completely ignores the 90%+ energy efficiency component.
Let’s examine the current refrigerant landscape. Currently, 100% of the world’s HVAC equipment is running on either HCFCs (an ozone-depleting refrigerant class already being phased-out for U.S. manufacturing or import by 2020) or HFCs which were developed as their replacement. The HCFC phase-out that began in the late 80 gives birth to the development of friendlier HFC refrigerants that were non-ozone depleting. The current crop of HFCs come in a wide variety of constituents, blends and uses. It would be more than fair to say that not all HFCs are created equal in terms of their energy efficiency or their impact when leaking into the atmosphere (their GWP). The newest kids on the block are known as HFOs and are capturing attention due to their low GWP, however, they remain in R&D stage due to their inherent energy inefficiency and flammability. The global HFC phase-out is dependent upon the further development of HFOs and efficient equipment that can operate using them. If HFOs, or a new refrigerant class, are not developed to be equally or more energy efficient as their HFC cousins, the HFC phase-out will result in significant detriment to climate change by actually increasing the overall GHG impact of HVAC-R.
For Industry, the most important aspects of this debate currently include the fact that an effective, non-HFC (or non-HCFC) refrigerant which is neither flammable or non-toxic has yet to be developed that will operate in the millions of HVAC-R units that will continue in operation for 30+ years while the Kigali Amendments are implemented. Also, there is currently no such thing as new HVAC equipment that runs on something other than HFCs (or HCFCs) or HFC blends (inclusive of blends containing a nominal % of HFOs). Translation: If you own or are planning to upgrade your HVAC equipment in the near future, you will be using HFCs. What matters most, in terms of your impact to climate change, is the energy efficiency of your refrigerant and the system it is running in and to a lesser degree, but still meaningful, the GWP of your refrigerant.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, if you are thinking of investing in new HVAC equipment, by definition this new equipment will run on HFCs and will become obsolete before the end of its useful life as a result of the Kigali Amendments to the Montreal Protocols. This leads to a critical realization for Industry when equipment replacement isn’t absolutely mandatory, the best recommendation is to upgrade and optimize your existing HVAC system with an energy efficient and lower GWP refrigerant to provide the best energy efficiency possible. Reducing your electricity consumption by 5% or 10% does more than adopting a very low GWP refrigerant – which may or may not become viable in the future.
Proponents for slowing the effects of climate change need to push for aggressive interim remedies inclusive of energy efficiency mandates and lower GWP requirements that don’t sacrifice efficiency to provide alternatives for current equipment with decades of remaining useful life. Rather than a global deal committing the world to a singularly focused phase-out of HFCs, additions need to be made to the Kigali Amendments demanding energy efficient refrigerants and component options that reduce electricity consumption today while also being environmentally safe with the lowest GWP possible.