Many in the HVACR industry seemed a little surprised when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit recently denied a petition that asked the court to revisit its August 2017 decision, in which it was mandated that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot ban hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants under Section 612 of the Clean Air Act. The court ruled that the provision was designed only to address ozone-depleting substances, and while HFCs are among the greenhouse gases suspected of contributing to climate change, they do not deplete the ozone layer.
Manufacturers of air conditioning and refrigeration equipment have been preparing for the phasedown of HFCs since the creation of the 2016 Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which calls for a global phasedown of HFCs by more than 80 percent over the next 30 years. So far, 25 countries have ratified the Kigali Amendment, pushing it over the threshold of 20 countries needed for the treaty to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, in developed countries. However, it has not been ratified by the U.S., and the Trump administration is currently deciding whether or not to send it to the Senate for ratification.
President Donald Trump is apparently weighing out how the Kigali Amendment will affect the economy, according to former White House official, George David Banks.
“While the administration recognizes that the amendment enjoys broad industry support, we need to carefully think this through and do our best to understand the economic, legal, political, the environmental aspects [of it],” he said.
Banks stressed that the White House wants to understand how this benefits U.S. companies, how it preserves and creates U.S. jobs, and how it can help the trade balance and foster exports to other countries.
No one knows what Trump will do regarding the Kigali Amendment, but to see how it could affect the U.S., we need look no further than the European Union (EU), which has been phasing down HFCs (or F-gases, as they’re called there) since 2015. Per the 2014 EU F-Gas Regulation guidelines, sales of virgin HFCs in the EU were cut about 18 percent last year, but as of January 2018, that rose to 37 percent. Knowing that this steep drop-off would occur, experts had hoped end users would reduce their use of HFCs by the time this significant cut took place. But that did not happen, and now prices of some HFCs are skyrocketing, distributors are being accused of stockpiling, and contractors are scrambling to find refrigerant at any price.
Of course, what happens in Europe may not necessarily occur here, but it’s definitely a cautionary tale. Especially now that Congress has waded into the debate by introducing the American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act, which would provide the EPA with the authority to phase down the manufacture of HFCs in the U.S. But if HFCs are phased down, what will take the place of R-410A, particularly in residential and light commercial applications?
True, the EPA has not signaled that R-410A is in any danger of being listed as “unacceptable” for residential and light commercial applications, but the agency has already listed the HFCs R-404A and R-410A as being unacceptable for several types of refrigeration equipment starting in January 2023. Most think ammonia, CO2, and propane will likely be the favored alternative refrigerants for these types of applications.
As far as the residential and light commercial market is concerned, there are no nonflammable alternatives on the market that can take the place of R-410A. The EPA has listed three acceptable alternative refrigerants for these applications — propane, R-32, and R-441A — while noting that other blends of low-global warming potential (GWP) alternatives, such as hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) blends, may be possibilities in the near future. Although much work remains to fully adopt these chemicals, technologies, and practices, and some unknowns still remain, equipment manufacturers and chemical producers for the residential and light commercial a/c industry are working on developing new alternatives, according to the EPA.
It is unclear whether Trump will sign off on the Kigali Amendment or the AIM Act, but let’s hope that our politicians keep an eye on how the rapid phasedown of HFCs in Europe is playing out before enacting any policies that will have long-lasting effects on the HVACR industry.
Publication date: 4/4/2018