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Energy Efficiency Key to Lower Carbon Emissions in A/C, Refrigeration

Nov. 25, 2014
A report on a recent White House roundtable discussion on the phasedown of high-global-warming-potential refrigerants used in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a White House roundtable discussion on the phasedown of high-global-warming-potential (GWP) refrigerants used in air-conditioning and refrigeration systems. The event brought together public- and private-sector leaders to discuss the best ways to meet the reduction in emissions caused by some hyrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants called for in the president’s Climate Action Plan.

Administration leaders, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Gina McCarthy and the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Ernest Moniz, came to the roundtable asking for comments, commitments, and partnerships that would catalyze the transition to more climate-friendly refrigerant alternatives. According to the White House, emissions of high-GWP HFCs—potent greenhouse gases—are expected to double from the current level of 1.5 percent of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 and triple by 2030, if action is not taken.

One of the main issues industry leaders brought to the table is the need to keep energy efficiency at the forefront of any effort to reduce air-conditioning and refrigeration emissions. Most emissions from these systems do not come from refrigerants. In fact, up to 98 percent of total carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions from air-conditioning and refrigeration equipment is attributed to electric use over the equipment’s useful life. That means maintaining or improving equipment efficiency as we move to lower-GWP solutions should be the primary focus when the goal is to lower carbon footprint.

Industry leaders also pointed out that low GWP should not be the lone criterion for selecting a refrigerant. We need to choose the right refrigerant for the application for each region in the world. Some low-GWP alternatives can make equipment less efficient, defeating the purpose of the change.

Other issues with some new low-GWP fluids are safety, efficiency, availability, reliability, and cost. Some new alternative refrigerants are flammable, are currently only available in low production quantities, and can cost three to 20 times more at current low volumes. There is no single solution for refrigerant selection. Each application needs to be evaluated based on a number of factors, including use, location, capacity, and type of equipment.

As part of the industry/administration partnership, companies are making substantial commitments to researching and developing new low-GWP refrigerants. Johnson Controls, for example, has spent more than $26 million on the development of low-GWP technologies over the last three years. Over the next three years, it plans to spend another $50 million to develop new products and improve and expand its existing low-GWP portfolio.

Also during the roundtable, industry leaders expressed a need for greater coordination and more-consistent regulations. They asked for more coordination between the EPA and DOE when regulating products and emphasized the importance of a single global multilateral agreement to reduce HFC emissions so that the industry can focus on one set of regulations and rules instead of navigating a multitude of regional regulations.

The administration committed to:

  • Promoting the use of safer alternatives to HFCs in federal buildings through procurement requirements and the availability of performance information.
  • Inviting technology manufacturers and industry stakeholders to use federal buildings to prototype new technologies and to assist in monitoring results as part of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Green Proving Ground program.
  • Expanding the list of climate-friendly alternatives to both ozone-depleting substances and high-GWP HFCs and organize sector workshops to assist in their adoption.
  • Engaging stakeholders in creating consistent refrigerant-management regulations through application of existing rules for ozone-depleting refrigerants.
  • Supporting safer alternatives to HFCs by funding the research and development of next-generation, efficient cooling technologies, including HVAC technologies that use alternative refrigerants and those that forgo the use of refrigerants altogether.

The roundtable was a good start. Working together, we can reach our environmental goals as a nation and as an industry. Events like this give those of us in the industry an opportunity to advocate for our customers. It is important we continue to use our industry real-world experience and expertise to help choose the best liquids for our customers and the environment. The administration and regulatory agencies involved in this roundtable should be commended for taking a collaborative approach. We look forward to more opportunities to engage in informative discussions.

William F. McQuade, PE, LEED AP, FASHRAE, is director of technology, energy efficiency, and the environment for Johnson Controls Inc. He has participated in various international climate and ozone meetings and provided input to the U.S., EC, and Chinese governments regarding ozone and climate regulation and legislation. He was selected by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. EPA to serve as an industry representative on the Indo-U.S. Taskforce on HFCs. Also, he has served as an expert on the U.S. DOE HVAC Roadmap Collaboration Team and been invited to speak as an expert on low-GWP refrigerants at various World Bank, United Nations, and industry technical meetings.