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Where the U.S. Stands on Low-Global-Warming-Potential Refrigerants

July 7, 2017
In June 2016, the U.S. announced Mission Innovation, an effort to advance renewable, non-fossil energy. Then came November and the political sea change.

In June 2016, then-U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced Mission Innovation, an effort to establish a $30 billion fund among 20 countries and the European Union to advance research of renewable, non-fossil energy.

Moniz’s announcement also included three global campaigns dealing with climate change, all important to American business, one particularly so for the HVAC industry: the Advanced Cooling Challenge.

The Advanced Cooling Challenge had two main parts. One pertained to energy efficiency; the other was an announcement the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) would partner with the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) and ASHRAE “to conduct critical research regarding the safe use of mildly flammable (A2L) and flammable (A3) refrigerants as low-global-warming-potential (low-GWP) alternatives to hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in the air conditioning and refrigeration sectors.”

There’s cruel irony in the fact many low-GWP refrigerants have safety issues, including flammability, under some conditions. Hence, they are not widely used and would remain marginal without the regulatory push from climate concerns.

When Mission Innovation was announced, the DOE committed $3 million for Advanced Cooling Challenge research. AHRI already had committed $1 million and ASHRAE $1.2 million.

For businesses, Moniz’s comments and the DOE’s research partnership set expectations. Obviously, if safe and effective materials are disallowed for climate reasons, some sense of certainty regarding replacements is needed.

Then came November and the political sea change. Climate and global warming tumbled from the top of the executive agenda to somewhere much lower. So, where does the United States stand regarding these energy and cooling issues now, one year later?

Internationally, Mission Innovation still is in effect. In June, the Second Mission Innovation Ministerial met in Beijing, with U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry in attendance.

At the national level, there are questions about whether the United States will contribute to Mission Innovation’s $30 billion research budget and advanced cooling research.

In May, the DOE released its FY 2018 budget. Refrigerant issues are not a top priority. For example, HVAC and refrigeration research and development within the building-technologies portion of the proposed budget was cut from $17.4 million (FY 2016) to $5.4 million for FY 2018.

The president’s budget, of course, is preliminary. It is Congress that completes the budget, and funding is likely to shift, probably considerably. Moniz said Congress historically supports basic research and that commitments impacting energy-related work may not necessarily appear within just one agency’s budget. The more important figure, Moniz said, is the overall federal commitment to basic research across many agencies. It remains to be seen how Congress will finalize research budgets.

Given the big changes in Washington, DOE officials were asked to update their low-GWP research. They offered just brief comments through a department press officer, referencing ongoing risk-assessment work and modeling tools to develop “burning velocity data and predictive tools for refrigerants that will eventually help optimize refrigerant blends with regard to flammability.” They said they hope to have a report available in the fall.

Meanwhile, ASHRAE and AHRI have stayed on task.

Karim Amrane is senior vice president, regulatory and international policy, for AHRI. He said AHRI maintains its support for the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants. It is his sense, he said, that neither the DOE nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will abandon this initiative, although timetables and demands likely will change. Amrane said these still are new discussions between agency and industry officials; there are no conclusive answers yet.

Kenneth Schultz, PhD, chairs ASHRAE’s A2L refrigerant research subcommittee. He provided an update on the A2L work, focusing on three major projects:

  • Flammable Refrigerants Post-Ignition Simulations and Risk Assessment Update. This work follows an AHRI project on the same topic that is under final review. ASHRAE’s work uses computer simulations to build on a broader range of potential “ignition events,” actual physical testing done by the AHRI team. ASHRAE’s work started in January. Schultz said it is a bit behind schedule, likely to miss a Dec. 31 completion target.
  • Guidelines for Flammable Refrigerant Handling, Transporting, Storing, and Equipment Servicing, Installation, and Dismantling. The project seeks to identify safety guidelines, standards, and requirements in other countries, information to possibly inform changes to U.S. safety standards. This should be finished in September.
  • Servicing and Installing Equipment Using Flammable Refrigerants/Assessment of Field-made Mechanical Joints. This project seeks to characterize and quantify the leak-tightness of various types of field-made joints in refrigerant piping and system components. Researchers are reviewing the permissibility of anything other than brazed or soldered joints. This project should be finished by year’s end.

A priority goal is to have new standards ready for incorporation into the International Code Council’s (ICC’s) 2018 I-codes. The deadline is Dec. 1, 2017.

ICC’s work starts a long regulatory process for governments. The sooner alternate refrigerants move into the mainstream (as they have in some European and Asian markets), the sooner the older compounds can be phased out.

With the ongoing ASHRAE projects, Schultz said, even if work is not completed by December, researchers likely will have enough information to support proposed U.S. code revisions. Amrane, too, suggested a review package could be ready by deadline, with the ICC possibly taking up unfinished issues at a later date, perhaps meeting in emergency review.

Hard work, critical ramifications—clear federal leadership would help here.

Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy and environmental issues.

About the Author


Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy and environmental issues.