Natural Refrigerants are a Critical Climate Solution

Submitted by bporter on December 17, 2020

Guest-blog Author: BF Nagy, Climate Solution Group

When we talk about our climate crisis we don’t often mention refrigeration, and yet climate scientists rank refrigerant reform near the top of their list of climate action priorities. Consequently, Americans are beginning to seek more information about the ongoing battle for safer refrigeration and cooling. As emissions increase, wildfires rage, storms grow in intensity, and our oceans, fresh water bodies and glaciers are all in trouble – we must demand faster action.

It’s critical that we act now, because refrigerants contribute to both climate change and ozone damage. They are greenhouse gases, assigned with a GWP or Global Warming Potential rating. For all these reasons Green America’s Cool It campaign focuses on quickly eliminating harmful refrigerants.

History of Global Action

Environmentalists and progressive refrigeration professionals have been trying to work on this problem since before the Montreal Protocol in 1989. As with so many of our environmental challenges, we have made positive progress in isolated cases, but the needed momentum is seriously lacking.

The Montreal Protocol was a response to the discovery of a breach in the earth’s atmospheric ozone layer (“the hole in the ozone above the Antarctic”) caused by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) refrigerants. The treaty was signed by most of the nations on earth, 197 in all.

It resulted in some slow but positive action, and although new problems have emerged, it shows that countries can indeed come together on important climate accomplishments. The hole in the ozone layer has shrunk, but improvement stalled during 2019, which scientists think may have been caused by violations in China and fracking complications in the US.

While HFCs don't harm the ozone layer, they negatively affect the climate. For this reason the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol was created, and came into effect in January of 2019. It calls for 80% reduction in the use of HFCs by 2050. Sixty-five of the 197 global signatories to the original protocol have ratified the amendment. The US should pass detailed ratification legislation and provide leadership to benefit both its own clean energy industries and all countries suffering from severe and growing climate crisis impacts.

The most recent development is a bi-partisan agreement in the US Senate during September 2020 for new legislation to guide the country’s phase-down of HFCs. The phase-down will occur over a 15-year period from when the legislation is passed, but this is unlikely to happen before 2021.

What are the Solutions?

Ideally, HFCs will be replaced by natural refrigerants, and also unfortunately, with blended products. Blended products are costly half measures designed by profit-minded chemical companies who are lobbying governments to make rules that will help them sell more chemicals. Natural refrigerants are well proven, less expensive and a much better choice, however, their introduction has been delayed by these political efforts.

There are now numerous case examples of natural refrigerants doing the job in all the necessary realms: cooling for buildings, retail store refrigeration, deep freezing in food plants, refrigerated warehouses and transport vehicles.

Three natural refrigerants in particular can cover most of the refrigeration and air conditioning needs that affect Americans and our organizations. None of them are new and they have been used extensively in the past 100 years. Innovative modern equipment and processes have been evolving to help solve contemporary challenges, including flammability and high pressure, and bring the three natural products back to the forefront.
 

Natural Refrigerants are Available

The three main refrigerants are Ammonia, C02, and Propane, which have been designated as having Global Warming Potential (GWP) ratings of 0, 1 and 3 respectively. For context, most of the products in our systems today have been ascribed GWP numbers exceeding 3000, and most of the blended products fall roughly in the middle between these two extremes.

Large companies are proving that natural refrigerants can meet the scale of cooling demands. Pepsi and Coke have reportedly installed thousands of retail refrigeration cabinets that use natural R290 propane refrigerant. Target has deployed such cases in more than 1,000 of its 1,800 U.S. stores, while Whole Foods has them in 500+ stores, according to the Energy Information Administration of the US Department of Energy. These alternatives have also been adopted by chains like McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The ALDI U.S. supermarket chain operates more than 320 stores using transcritical C02 refrigeration.[2] Whole Foods, Albertsons and Raley’s are also operating successful ammonia/C02 systems. 

It may seem counter-intuitive that C02, widely known as a greenhouse gas that causes global warming (in excessive concentrations), is described as a sustainable, natural refrigerant. However, new C02-based heat pumps and other refrigeration and cooling equipment provide the greenest, safest, most economical solutions.[3]  This is the nomenclature of the industry, and it is the same element, just much better managed and in far lower concentrations than the fossil-fuel driven C02 emissions wreaking havoc on our climate.

One of the key by-products of these systems is that they recapture heat from the refrigeration system and use it for space heating in the store. In many regions, including some cold places in Canada, the result is an abundance of heat available, and no other heating system is needed, so these modern systems also save energy and reduce space heat emissions.

Making the Economics Work

Just as economics play a negative role in the questionable motivation of chemical companies, they also can play a positive role in changing refrigeration. To defeat climate change, we must find ways to create good-paying jobs while building better buildings and installing less harmful technical systems.

Although both sides in the Senate seem to agree on refrigerant action, it’s unclear when new legislation will actually be passed. In the absence of national leadership, regional governments have implemented their own guidelines. This is a problematic outcome, because though similar, they are not identical, creating a regulation patchwork that can be difficult for design work by manufacturers, for training of installers, and for efficient equipment supply by distributors.

Within the US refrigeration industry, trade organizations and equipment makers (but not chemical companies) are eager for this long overdue regulation to be enacted, and to contribute to essential national and international standards. America is coming late to the effort, and technology manufacturers are concerned that they have already given up market share to European and Asian firms, as the disruption manifests in the refrigeration marketplace.

Energy is much more expensive in Europe and densities in both homes and businesses in Asia are very high. These two regions have been working with more efficient alternative equipment for decades, and have a head start on research and development, supply chains and regulatory frameworks.

I’m predicting that natural refrigerants will win the fight against blended chemical products in the end, but the current pace of progress is far too slow and we must demand faster action. Although natural refrigerants are in use by large brands mentioned in this article, and by many lesser known companies, obstacles have been created by vested interests every step of the way.

We need to celebrate and promote natural refrigerant success stories, and press our governments to move quickly on the needed regulatory framework, especially at the federal level.

In addition, Green America's Cool It campaign promotes some important short-term refrigerant management goals. These include better leak repair and proper end of life refrigerant and equipment disposal. We can improve the world together by pressing for faster, more positive change. Let’s all Cool it for Climate!

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About the Author: Bruce (BF) Nagy is a sustainable technologies columnist for the American Society of Engineers Plumbing Engineer magazine (Chicago), and writes also for the Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada (HRAI), and other technical and government journals. He is the Author of The Clean Energy Age (2018 Rowman & Littlefield, Washington DC) and more than 190 feature stories on climate solutions.

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