Why refrigerants are a hot climate issue

The synthetic chemicals flowing unseen through air conditioners and refrigerators could be a major climate change risk, say industry experts.

supermarket refrigerators
Synthetic refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons can trap up to 3,900 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide can. Image: Shutterstock

Australian companies can save billions on energy bills and cut cooling-related emissions by half if they switch away from synthetic hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants to natural ones such as carbon dioxide and ammonia, said industry leaders on Tuesday. 

Refrigerants are fluids that absorb and release heat in heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) systems used in homes, commercial buildings and industrial facilities across the world. 

Speaking at the Australian Refrigeration Association’s (ARA) HVACR Energy Efficiency Seminar at the Australian Technology Park in Sydney, ARA president Tim Edwards told the 40-strong audience that “natural (refrigerants) are better in every way and yet, synthetics continue to dominate the industry”.

The most recent study on this by the Australian Department of the Environment in 2012 shows that about 43,500 tonnes of synthetic refrigerants such as HFCs or hydroflurochlorocarbons, or HCFCs, are stored in refrigeration and air conditioning equipment in the country. This volume of stored gas is known as a gas bank.

In comparison, the gas bank for natural refrigerants such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, and hydrocarbons was 4,800 tonnes at the end of 2012. 

Synthetic refrigerants such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and HCFCs were developed about 80 years ago as a safer alternative to existing natural solutions, which at the time were highly flammable. However, as scientists realised that these chemicals deplete the ozone layer, the international community agreed to phase out their use.

The Montreal Protocol, an international treaty, was signed by 197 countries in 1987 to achieve this and required the global phase-out of CFC-based refrigerants by 2010. Developing countries have till 2030 to phase out HCFC use. Developed countries have till 2020 to do this. 

However, the Protocol does not currently address HFCs, which are synthetic refrigerants developed to replace CFCs and HCFCs.

While HFCs have no effect on the ozone layer, they still have a high global warming potential, also known as ‘GWP’ in the industry, which is a measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide. 

Last November, the 197 countries which signed onto the Montreal Protocol agreed to add an amendment to the document aimed at reducing the production and consumption of HFCs. 

But getting the industry to reduce its HFC use may be difficult because, according to an ARA report, companies which make HFCs “have enormous investments in the production of patented synthetic refrigerants and therefore have a great deal to lose” if their products are replaced by more sustainable natural refrigerants. 

Therefore, even though the initial concerns surrounding the safety of natural refrigerants have largely been addressed by better technology, synthetic refrigerant makers continue to say these alternatives are risky, saids ARA.

While natural refrigerants are not widely used in HVACR currently, they absorb and release heat more efficiently than synthetics, and can deliver between 10 and 40 per cent more energy efficiency than HFC or HCFC alternatives, said Edwards.

In addition to indirect emissions from energy use, refrigerants also cause pollution when they leak out of HVACR equipment. This is an inevitable eventuality, said Edwards, because HVACR systems are frequently under intense mechanical stress. When leakages happen, synthetic refrigerants cause much more global warming than natural ones, he added.

For example, the government’s 2012 study estimates that the GWP of various HFC refrigerants over a 100 year period ranges from 794 to 3,922.

In contrast, carbon dioxide has a GWP of one, and ammonia causes no global warming at all. Some natural hydrocarbon refrigerants have a maximum GWP of three. 

Natural (refrigerants) are better in every way and yet, synthetics continue to dominate the industry.

Tim Edwards, president, Australian Refrigeration Association

Changes ahead 

If Australia shifts to using natural refrigerants and invests in other energy efficiency improvements, it can cut its HVACR-related energy costs by 60 per cent, said Edwards. This will help the country save A$8 billion annually. 

The industry will also be able to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by half, which in turn will drive a 7 per cent reduction in national greenhouse gas emissions, he added.

However, these changes will require investments in new equipment or system retrofits to accommodate the new natural refrigerants. But as a Greenpeace report suggested, the pay-back period on these investments is low due to significant energy savings, and maintenance costs are also lower.

Greenpeace also noted that “many natural refrigerants are inexpensive, some less expensive than HFCs”. According to an Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration industry publication for example, notes that carbon dioxide - a byproduct of many industries -  can be purchased as a refrigerant for about US$1 per pound (450 grammes).

Companies and the government will also have to train engineers and technicians to manage natural refrigerants safely, noted Edwards.

While the Montreal Protocol amendment on reducing HFCs is still pending, some governments have independently committed to phasing out the use of these synthetic refrigerants, noted Edwards. The European Union, for example, is cutting the availability of HFCs by 79 per cent between 2015 and 2030.

The countries which make up the G20 bloc of countries - including Australia - have also issued a statement agreeing to work together to phase down HFCs under the Montreal protocol. But Edwards said that Australia has been slow to translate this verbal commitment to action.

Other countries in Asia Pacific, like Singapore, have also not made much progress on shifting their HVACR sector away from HFCs, he added.

But Ignacio Gavilan, sustainability director of industry group Consumer Goods Forum, said that the private sector is already taking the lead on this. 

Reducing HFC use among companies in its network is a key priority for the association, and many Forum members have implemented projects which prove that it is possible and profitable to switch to natural refrigeration, he added. 

Anglo-Dutch consumer goods giant Unilever, for example, has been replacing its HFC-based point-of-sale ice cream freezer cabinets across the world with ones that use hydrocarbon refrigerants since 2004.

Hydrocarbon-refrigerant freezers are 10 per cent more energy efficient than older models. The company estimates that the energy efficiency of freezers bought in 2013 avoided about 40,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions compared to machines bought in 2008.

Another case study by Coca-Cola shows that it has invested more than US$100 million over the past decade in more sustainable coolers, and has more than 1.7 million units of HCF-free equipment worldwide. This will prevent the emission of about 9 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide over 10 years, according the company/

More companies should start piloting natural refrigerant solutions, measuring the energy and emissions savings that result from this, and share best practices with others in the industry, Gavilan urged.

“For retailers and manufacturers, there is no real excuse not to adopt HFC-free technologies,” said Gavilan. “We have the most cost-effective climate mitigation strategy, and it is available today”. 

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