The HVAC Industry Must Work Together to Get Low-GWP Refrigerants Right
Most of the world’s governments continue to work toward a low-carbon future, making international pledges and enacting policies to encourage energy efficiency, reduce the use of coal, and employ renewable generation technologies.
Not the U.S. We are going in the opposite — and wrong — direction. We are promising to bring back coal industry jobs, cutting back on federal energy efficiency research and development, withdrawing from the Paris Climate agreement, and relaxing rules that would phase out high-global warming potential (GWP) gases.
But in California, home to 12 percent of the U.S. population and 13 percent of our national GDP, the state government is accelerating its drive to move to ultra-low-GWP refrigerants. It has been described as a “giant laboratory” for new technologies. But, unlike a laboratory, where experiments can go wrong from time to time, the introduction of new refrigerants — many of which are flammable — will not be tolerant of many mistakes. The industry is going to have to get it right the first time.
If the California Air Resources Board (CARB) makes good on its recent proposals, then in less than 36 months from now, the only HVACR equipment that will be available for sale in the Golden State will contain a new generation of refrigerants. Other states may soon follow their lead. However, as we now begin 2018, we are just beginning to bring to market the new technology we will quickly need to satisfy the growing list of states that will be practicing such environmental leadership. Equipment will need to be redesigned and tested. Safety standards will need to be updated. Wholesalers and technicians will need to be trained. Building codes that govern the legal installation of this new equipment need to be adopted. Fire marshals will need to be made aware that new refrigerants have flammable properties. It all takes time.
California, as a first step, proposes to adopt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) rules into California law. These rules ban certain high-GWP refrigerants in many commercial refrigeration and chiller applications. The SNAP rules were struck down by the U.S. District Court and, as of this writing, are in limbo; they are currently in effect but waiting for further court decisions. California’s actions make sense. They give manufacturers and all segments of the industry certainty that SNAP rules will be enforced. Any equipment manufacturer that had considered taking advantage of a relaxation of the hydrofluorocarbon (HFC)-phaseout rules might want to reconsider the possibility of losing California and other markets.
Those other markets include a federation of 14 states that have joined California in the U.S. Climate Alliance. At the latest meeting of the parties that signed onto the Paris Agreement, these states told the world, “We’re still in,” and they’ll continue their policies of lowering greenhouse gas emissions.
Beyond adopting the SNAP rules, California is proposing banning most of today’s refrigerants from new air conditioning and refrigeration equipment in 2021. If left unchanged, it means that, in 36 months, new refrigeration equipment will no longer use R-404A. In fact, the 150-GWP limit for equipment with less than 50 pounds of refrigerant would mean that only flammable refrigerants would be in use for those purposes.
For air conditioning equipment, California’s 750-GWP limit would mean the end of R-410A, leaving R-32 and other mildly flammable refrigerant blends as the only solutions.
The ambitious California goal also comes with many significant problems: Will the industry have time to prepare to deliver new technologies? Can a sufficient number of technicians be trained? Will the state recognize the benefits of recovered and reclaimed refrigerants and allow for their resale?
California can become a leader in low-GWP refrigeration and air conditioning systems by working with those who have already experienced the introduction of new HVACR technologies. California may be leading the nation, but across the Atlantic, ultra-low-GWP equipment is being used in large numbers. There are hundreds of supermarkets in Europe using CO2 as a refrigerant. These systems were once limited to the cooler, northern climates, but new technologies now make them attractive throughout most of the U.S.
A group of U.S. manufacturers and users are working through the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council to hasten the uptake of ultra-low-GWP refrigerants in California and elsewhere. On the international stage, groups like the Alliance of Responsible Atmospheric Policy are being proactive to ensure the U.S. is keeping with our refrigerant phaseout obligations.
It is important for all segments of the industry to work together to make sure we get the introduction of low-GWP equipment and refrigerants right. This is not just a laboratory experiment in California; it’s the technology upon which we will base our livelihoods and the future of our industry.
Publication date: 1/22/2018