As I mentioned in a recent article — “SNAP Decisions: California Refrigerant Saga Continues,” published April 1 — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is experiencing a bit of an existential crisis, doubting how much agency it really has to protect the environment when it comes to regulating refrigerants.

Regardless of one’s perspective on climate change, a few truths remain self-evident: Equipment is expensive. Newer or less widely adopted technology is often even more expensive. And a little budgetary relief will make it easier for any business owner to give even a first thought to environmental impact when planning capital investments.

That last bit is why the authors of the California Cooling Act (aka, S.B. 1013) used the law to instruct the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to create and administer the Fluorinated Gases Emission Reduction Incentive Program.

(You know the subject matter is getting deep when politicians can’t come up with a clever acronym for a bill. And no, The NEWS will not be referring to the program as the FGERIP.)

Despite its awkward name, the incentive strategy prioritizes low-GWP alternatives “that maximize emissions reductions and focus on key cooling sectors.” In addition, it would put special emphasis in market areas where CARB identified the price gap between higher- and lower-GWP options as “a market impediment.”

Reasonable enough, especially in California. After all, then-Gov. Jerry Brown had already included $20 million for such incentives in his own proposed budget the year before S.B. 1013 passed.

However, a hitch developed: As with that $20 million proposal, the California legislature has thus far declined to appropriate funds to get the California Cooling Act’s incentive program up and running.



It’s a good thing that irony isn’t bad for the environment, because just across town from the state’s Capitol building, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is already running its own Pilot Natural Refrigerant Incentive Program.

Kathleen Ave, a senior strategic business planner in SMUD’s Energy research and development area, took the time to weigh in with Ryan Hammond, senior energy advisor in the Customer Solutions area, via an email exchange with The NEWS.

“We know the pilot natural refrigerant incentive has helped certain customers decide to move forward with natural refrigerants when they would otherwise stick with conventional systems,” they said, recognizing the newer systems’ costs and relative unfamiliarity.

In one case, SMUD is even helping a customer to secure grant funding beyond the program’s incentives (which can run up to $150,000).

“And we know there is a lot of interest from other parts of the state because CARB promoted the program statewide when it launched,” they wrote. “We got inquiries from businesses all over California!”

The North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council’s (NASRC’s) executive director, Danielle Wright, spoke to the potential of such a program performing on a state level. Beyond incentivizing low-GWP installations, she said, SMUD’s program drives energy efficiency and optimized design in general.

“As the number of supermarkets installing low-GWP refrigerant systems increases,” Wright explained, “the economies of scale increase, and costs of manufacturing and installation are reduced, which in turn drives demand for other supermarkets to adopt similar technology. California is poised to initiate this virtuous economic cycle, which will scale the reduction of HFC emissions nationally.”

Of course, in terms of actual impact, poised but unfunded is about the same as not remotely interested. It might be worse, really, when one considers the rest of the California Cooling Act’s demands regarding refrigerants and equipment, implemented except without the intended financial assistance.

SMUD has provided a nascent but working example. The folks at CARB are certainly willing to do their part. Many owners are prepared to do theirs, too, as long as it can make a modicum of financial sense.

One can see how an Earth-friendly shift in equipment norms could work out pretty well for contractors, too. Sure, the federal government might provide some certainty with its own phase-down plan, but is banking on that development prudent at this juncture?

The rest of the California Cooling Act isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Reluctant California government lawmakers should appreciate resident natural-refrigerant early adopters and sympathize with other key businesspeople who will face required modifications to their practices and systems over the next few years. Call it pro-environment or pro-contractor, or simply fulfilling the terms of a duly passed law, but it’s time to show these owners the money.

Publication date: 4/22/2019

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