Despite the fact that air conditioning and refrigeration (HVAC&R) is an important contributor to economic performance and the quality of life, its contribution to energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is broadly misunderstood and understated.

The industry makes a central contribution to fundamental industries including the built environment, food and pharmaceutical production and distribution, healthcare and hospitality and virtually all other human activities; effectively everyone, everywhere.

The importance of the HVAC&R industry in Australia is demonstrated by the following statistics [1]:

  • 45 million individual installations
  • Two per cent of GDP, $26 billion spent annually, $6 billion in capital investment per annum, and perhaps $100 billion installed HVAC&R infrastructure at current dollar value
  • 22 per cent of electricity consumption
  • 12 to 14 per cent of national CO2e emissions (GHG emissions)[2]
  • 20,000 firms, 170,000 direct employees, of whom about 70,000 are licensed to handle fluorocarbon refrigerants

The industry offers major sources of energy efficiency and the resulting cost savings. The ARA believes Australia has the opportunity to reduce the energy cost of HVAC&R infrastructure by 60 to 70 per cent over the next 15 years, a saving of $8/10 Billion PA.

The Role of International Agreements on Refrigerants

A central determinant of HVAC&R technology is refrigerant selection and the impact of international agreements to phase down the use of ozone depleting (OD) and high-GWP synthetic refrigerants.  The Montreal Protocol calls for the elimination of OD refrigerants that are also high-GWP refrigerants (CFC, HCFC) by 2020 in the industrialised world, in Australia by 2015. The EU has passed legislation that calls for the phase down of high-GWP synthetic refrigerants (HFC) by 2030 to 21 per cent of current use. This same policy has been adopted by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) led by UNEP, US and China. Australia supports this policy. The Montreal Protocol is seen as the best vehicle for the phase down of HFCs, having proven highly successful in the reduction of CFCs and HCFCs.

The implication is that the use of high-GWP synthetic refrigerants will be dramatically reduced over the next 15 years. This will require replacement of a large proportion of HVAC&R infrastructure because low-GWP refrigerant-based technology requires new HVAC&R equipment. As a result, original equipment manufactures (OEMs) worldwide are transitioning to low-GWP refrigerant equipment development and production, and they are doing so now.

Low-GWP refrigerants include the natural refrigerants (ammonia, carbon dioxide and hydrocarbon refrigerants) and low-GWP synthetic refrigerants (HFOs). Both natural refrigerants and low-GWP synthetic refrigerants are more energy efficient than high-GWP synthetic refrigerants.  Natural refrigerant-based technologies have been embraced in every sector of the HVAC&R industry to the extent that major multinational suppliers, end user organisations and governments now promote their use. For instance, the Consumer Goods Forum representing over 400 of the world’s leading multinational food retailers and food suppliers are now calling for all HVAC&R applications to use natural refrigerants.

HVAC&R Energy Efficiency

The transition to high HVAC&R energy efficiency offers major cost savings subject to HVAC&R engineers and contractors appreciating the full range of considerations and innovation. Whilst it is inappropriate to generalise about the degree of energy efficiency made possible by low-GWP refrigerant technology because there are many factors to consider, it is a fact that the thermal absorption of the natural refrigerants is far greater than that of high-GWP synthetic refrigerants. For instance, the thermal absorption of a typical hydrocarbon refrigerant is 496 kj/kg compared to 256 kj/kg for R410A – an improvement of 48 per cent. The same pattern applies across the range of natural refrigerants as compared to high-GWP synthetic refrigerants.

Whilst the capital cost of low-GWP refrigerant technology will tend to be higher in the short term it is the energy efficiency of this technology that will deliver major cost savings over the life of the equipment.  Whilst the transition to low-GWP refrigerant technology is commercially warranted it requires HVAC&R specifiers to be aware of the sources and management disciplines required.

The use of life cycle costing and increased life cycle management of HVAC&R equipment is fundamental to enabling HVAC&R energy efficiency to be fully realised. Only through the use of life cycle costing will the cost savings of energy efficient low-GWP refrigerant technology be fully appreciated. Only through the use of life cycle management systems will the energy efficiency of low-GWP refrigerant technology deliver the optimal degree of energy efficiency of HVAC&R equipment.

The sources of HVAC&R energy efficiency include both the mechanical devices that use low-GWP refrigerants and the use of integrated heat load management systems spanning the full range of methods for reducing the energy demand for heating and cooling.  These include the many ways to reduce the temperature change required of HVAC&R equipment like control systems, greater use of insulation systems like double glazed windows, reflective paints and low heat lighting. It is fundamental that HVAC&R specifiers recognise and deliver integrated energy efficiency solutions that optimise HVAC&R energy efficiency.

 HVAC&R GHG Emissions

The contribution of HVAC&R to greenhouse gas emissions also tends to be misunderstood and understated. HVAC&R is seldom recognised individually as a source of GHG emissions despite the fact that it is in fact a major source: 12 to 14 per cent of national emissions.

The energy consumption of the HVAC&R industry (indirect emissions) is extremely high (22.3 per cent of electricity use, about 10 per cent of national emissions) reflecting the many operating systems and their continuous use. It is direct emissions that are little understood and pervasively misrepresented. The Australian National Accounts report refrigerant emissions to be about one per cent of national emissions. This understates the volume of direct emissions for a series of reasons that defy logic and give rise to a great deal of misunderstanding; principally the failure to include high-GWP ozone depleting refrigerant emissions in Kyoto accounting.

The real impact of the HVAC&R industry in Australia is in the order of 14 per cent of national emissions. This is comprised of 10 per cent of national emissions due to energy consumption and four per cent due to unintentional and intentional high-GWP synthetic refrigerant emissions.

This understatement matters a great deal. It has the effect of failing to recognise HVAC&R as a primary potential source of emissions reduction. It has the effect of failing to recognise that there are solutions available in natural refrigerants for which direct emissions would be minimal because their GWP is negligible compared to high-GWP synthetic refrigerants.  Because the natural refrigerants are highly energy efficient their use will contribute to reduced indirect emissions. The use of natural refrigerants will eliminate direct GHG emissions and reduce indirect emissions by up to 50 per cent, a potential total reduction in national emissions of seven per cent.

The use of integrated energy efficiency solutions in association with high efficiency HVAC&R equipment has the potential to further reduce total energy consumption and indirect emissions.

[1]Cold Hard Facts 2, Dept of the Environment, 2013 (A taxonomy of the HVAC&R industry)
[2]This is the ARA’s estimate. Cold Hard Facts 2 says this is 11.7%. Contact ARA for explanation.