Refrigeration in the Global Economy

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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Refrigeration in the Global Economy
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In a recent paper, the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR) presented dramatic data on the size and function of all kinds of refrigeration worldwide.

According to the paper, titled The Role of Refrigeration in the Global Economy, there are about 3 billion installations around the world. These installations consume about 17 per cent of the electricity used globally and generate a large proportion of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

IIR is right in telling us about the many ways that refrigeration technology is employed; it serves everyone, everywhere; excepting those that don’t yet have access to the value that cooling delivers.

Given the new information available, I have long understated the global importance of refrigeration technology when explaining how important it is to the synthetic refrigerants industry to retain control of this important function regardless of its environmental impact. The fact is, the industry is larger than I have been estimating, but the point is the same. There is enormous commercial interest in dominating and controlling this industry because it is worth a lot and it will grow a lot.

It is critical, therefore, that the many sectors of the industry transition to low-GWP (global warming potential) refrigerant technology that is energy efficient – natural refrigerant-based technology. This is a conclusion IIR does not highlight or explain sufficiently.

IIR does not describe the future. The fact is that refrigeration technology use will grow dramatically in the developing world. – so much so that if we don’t eliminate the use of high-GWP refrigerant based technology, it will be responsible for a very large proportion of direct GHG emissions and a large proportion of indirect emissions. The high-GWP refrigerants are HFCs and HCFCs, both of which are synthetic refrigerants. HCFCs are also ozone depleting.

How much is a matter of debate. I am a little uncomfortable with the way the scientists express it. According to the paper The Importance of the Montreal Protocol in Protecting Climate, HFC emissions (refrigerant leakage) will add 28 to 45 per cent to global radiative forcing if we are able to constrain carbon to 450 parts per million in the atmosphere by 2050. My discomfort is based on the range and the additional nature of HFC emissions.

The range is obviously quite high, but I am not sure it really matters – 28 per cent incremental emissions is a huge amount. The primary explanation of the need for a high forecast range is that it is possible to reduce HFC refrigerant leakage, but it is not easy and it requires a high degree of commitment, engineering and training.

Right now, worldwide, refrigerant emissions are far higher than they need to be primarily because those policy initiatives are not in place and it serves the interests of the companies that sell refrigerants and control the industry in many regards. Because they are commercially large and have a major influence on government the required policies, standards and training have not been sufficiently adopted to reduce HFC emissions.

The real issue is the idea of incrementality.

It is well understood and pretty well publicized that the planet is at the limits of carbon in the atmosphere. It is generally accepted that if we do not stop carbon emissions, the world faces dire consequences.

What is far less well understood and publicized is the incremental nature of HFC emissions, their growth and their impact on energy consumption (indirect emissions). The fact is that we are at the limit of radiative forcing caused by carbon, but HFC emissions will add a great deal to global warming if we don’t stop using them. Their impact is both unnecessary leakage of very high-GWP materials and the fact that HFC refrigeration systems are not as energy efficient as the alternative, natural refrigerant-based technology.

These are two sides of the same coin. If you use HFC-based technology, you risk high direct emissions and you have lower energy efficiency than you could have had.

The fact is that HFC emissions are seldom recognised for their high impact largely due to obfuscation by the suppliers. For instance, the current Kyoto Protocol does not even count the global warming impact of ozone depleting synthetic refrigerants. For instance, we count the impact of synthetic refrigerant emissions based on their 100-year GWP when their atmospheric life is 20 years on average and their GWP over 20 years is twice as high as their 100-year. GWP. In the not-so-short term and in the long term, if we don’t stop using them, synthetic refrigerants will actually have a far greater impact than we give them credit for.

For instance, end of life refrigeration equipment worldwide is typically not degassed before being shredded, causing refrigerants to be intentionally released. This is happening despite the availability of technology that virtually eliminates emissions at end of life equipment recycling. There are many other examples of ongoing intentional and unintentional synthetic refrigerant emissions that could be reduced but are not.

So what is a scientist to do but reflect that lack of discipline in the industry?

And then there is the matter of indirect emissions. IIR says the industry consumes 17 per cent of electricity worldwide. In Australia, the HVACR industry is responsible for consuming at least 22 per cent of electricity, which represents about 10 per cent of national GHG emissions. Obviously dramatic growth in HVACR use in developing countries will cause dramatic growth in associated energy consumption so long as we use low energy efficiency technology.

So the real impact of the HVACR industry will probably be around an additional 38 to 55 per cent if we don’t stop using HFCs and we manage to control carbon emissions. You have never seen this forecast in print because the matter just doesn’t receive the attention and exploration and education required.

The refrigeration and air conditioning industry needs to understand HFCs are an enormous problem that we all need to deal with. Please don’t jump to the escape route that this is a problem caused by increased use of HVACR services in developing countries. Obviously, they have every right and need to access HVACR services. Obviously we all have to solve this problem together. Australia needs to show leadership in association with everybody else.

There is no question that the HVACR industry is a global industry. Technology that has been invented and shown to be commercially warranted in any country will ultimately go global. We therefore have a major responsibility to enable the commercialisation of energy efficient, low emissions technology and facilitate its adoption worldwide. That is natural refrigerant-based technology.

There is enormous proof of the energy efficiency and low emissions value of natural refrigerant-based technology. It is available in all HVACR sectors and it is proven to be commercially and environmentally preferable in all sectors.

I believe the broad scale adoption of natural refrigerant-based technology in association with other sources of HVACR energy efficiency could enable Australia to reduce its HVACR costs by $10 billion per year.

This is the opportunity we ask you to focus on: how can I employ natural refrigerant-based technology and thereby reduce my HVACR costs dramatically?

Cover image via Silverlake HVAC

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