A few days prior to the start of the recent ATMOsphere 2017 conference held June 5-7 in San Diego, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. That did little to dampen the mood among the conference’s 400-plus attendees. In an audience poll taken electronically during the conference’s opening session, the answer was overwhelmingly “no” (by a 77 percent to 23 percent margin) when the attendees were asked, “Do you expect the market prospects for natural refrigerant solutions in North America to be affected by the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement?”
Keilly Witman, owner of KW Refrigerant Management Strategy and co-chairman of the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council’s board of directors, summed up the mood of many of the attendees.
“It would be unwise for anyone in our industry to use the current administration’s anti-environment attitude as an excuse to stop making progress on refrigerants,” she said. “Whether Donald Trump is in power for four or even eight years, people who deal with refrigerants and the environment must think much more long term than that.
“If you think there is a chance anytime in the future that we’ll have another president who makes decisions based on the vast body of scientific evidence in support of man-made climate change, you’d be smart to continue moving toward very low-GWP [global warming potential] refrigerants whenever possible,” Witman added. “If you sit out the years that Trump is in office, you’ll later find yourself desperately trying to make up the ground you lost.”
FULL SPEED AHEAD
The theme of this conference was “The Business Case for Natural Refrigerants,” and the presenters and attendees see a natural refrigerant business that is poised to go full speed ahead.
“Natural refrigerants have too much momentum already [to be affected by the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement],” said Bryan Beitler, vice president and chief engineer, Source Refrigeration and HVAC Inc., at the opening thought-leaders panel discussion.
Scott Martin, director of business development and industry relations, HillPhoenix Inc., added, “[The withdrawal from the Paris agreement] will affect the industry to the extent that it’s a big topic of conversation here, but it would be short-sighted, and, in my opinion, a mistake to assume it will change the industry’s approach.”
Gerard von Dohlen, president, Newark Refrigerated Warehouse, kept things in perspective: The U.S. exit from the Paris agreement may make headlines; however, “I find it hard to believe that China is going to lead the world to a cleaner environment,” he said.
A GOOD BUSINESS CASE
Part of the reason for the optimism about the future of natural refrigerants is rooted in the fact that a good business case can be made for them.
“It’s not just about regulations as these are good refrigerants,” said Tristam Coffin, director of sustainability and facilities for the northern California region of Whole Foods Market. “They are efficient and work quite well. The reason we’re all sitting in this room today is because we know these refrigerants can have a positive effect on both the environment and our bottom lines. Regulation is the stick, but there are plenty of carrots out there, and there are good business reasons to use natural refrigerants.”
Von Dohlen agreed, stating, “Clearly, ammonia, propane, and CO2 are the refrigerants of the future, and I absolutely believe that because they’re excellent refrigerants. I don’t care if they’re natural or not. They’re easy to handle, easy to use, and have good oil properties, but unfortunately, we do have to deal with the regulations, and no one knows what’s going to happen next in that regard.”
When it comes to a difficult regulatory environment, von Dohlen knows of what he speaks. He said that although the vast majority of cold storage facilities nationwide use ammonia refrigeration systems, onerous ammonia regulations in New Jersey forced him to replace his facility’s ammonia brine system with an R-22 system in the mid-1990s. Now, he’s in the process of trying to determine what should replace the R-22 system.
“Propane would be a great choice,” he said. “It has the same suction and head pressures as R-22, and it’s very efficient. However, when I told the town I wanted to use 1,100 pounds of propane, which is within the limits of the International Building Code — they didn’t know if they should arrest me or throw me in the loony bin. So I’m probably going to use R-507. Don’t get me wrong, R-507 is a good refrigerant, but would ammonia be the best refrigerant for us? Certainly. Why do you think 95 percent of the industry uses it? Because they’re dumb? No, it’s because they’re not in New Jersey.”
THE SILVER BUCKSHOT APPROACH
At the retail level, there are a number of different refrigerants and system architectures on the market or under development, and Coffin noted that Whole Foods continues to experiment with different types of systems to assess their performance in the field.
“We don’t believe there’s a silver bullet just yet, so we are taking more of a silver buckshot-type approach and hoping we’ll discover a silver bullet down the line,” Coffin said. “But between now and then, we’re evaluating the different systems that are installed to date in terms of what may be best for specific buildings and climate zones going forward.”
When asked about state-level regulations, Coffin said they would be effective in that manufacturers, end users, and engineering groups will manage uncertainty by adhering to the most stringent regulations in the marketplace.
“Whether that’s California, New York, or somewhere else, that’s what we’re going to manage, especially if we’re in a position where we have to streamline our approach to design and/or implementation of the systems that are available to us.”
THE SEARCH FOR THE HOLY GRAIL
The panelists agreed that the greatest growth in natural refrigerants is expected to be in food service applications and food retail, but there will be a place for hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), and HFO blends. One of the biggest challenges for the natural refrigerants industry remains the fact that ammonia, hydrocarbons (HCs), or CO2 cannot be dropped in to an existing HFC refrigeration system. Conversion to a natural refrigerant requires an investment in new equipment, which is cost-prohibitive for many facilities.
“Systems might last 20 or 30 years, so you’re not going to replace your system unless it’s an end-of-life situation,” Coffin noted. “The Holy Grail remains a cost-efficient retrofit solution for natural refrigerants, because that has implications for the lion’s share of the systems that are out there and operating today, not just the systems that we’re going to be installing tomorrow.”
Publication date: 8/7/2017