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Another Refrigerant Phase-Out On The Horizon

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The Obama Administration’s plans to address greenhouse gases and the impact of climate change will do more than try to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It will likely put in place a long standing government (and industry) plan to transition the HVACR industry away from HFC refrigerants over the next 20 years. Where that takes the industry is almost anyone’s guess.

The White House’s Climate Action Plan, announced in June, affects the largest producers of greenhouse gas emission: coal and other fossil fuel fired electricity generating power plants. The ambitiousness of the plan is evidenced by the fact this plan targets not just new power plants, but existing ones, too. Many in Congress from both sides of the aisle took this as a shot at coal, since coal fired plants would be the hardest and most expensive to retrofit, in a time when new, domestic natural gas sources are plentiful.

Setting aside the contentious politics of fuel choice, the Climate Action Plan will result in a refocusing of U.S. efforts to move away from hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants. Whether that comes through the global diplomatic efforts to expand the Montreal Protocol to cover HFCs or a standalone policy is yet to be seen.

For the last four years the U.S. has offered an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs. The Montreal Protocol is the 1987 international treaty written to phase out the use of CFC and HCFC refrigerants since these gases were found to deplete the ozone. The United States implemented the treaty in the early 1990s through changes to the Clean Air Act (CAA), and all HVACR contractors are aware of the use and handling requirements found in Section 608 of the CAA.

As the Montreal Protocol was being implemented and CFC and HCFC production and use were being phased out, the developed nations of the world transitioned to HFC compounds to meet its refrigerant needs. HFCs resolved the problems associated with ozone depletion, but they carried with them a high global warming potential. So in response, the Kyoto Protocol was written to address greenhouse gases like HFCs, but it has not been implemented or as successful on the global scale of the Montreal Protocol.

A plan to reduce the production and use of HFCs by expanding the Montreal Protocol treaty would benefit from the treaty’s successes. Earlier this year the U.S. and China reached an agreement to work together with other countries to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs.

It’s no secret that HFC refrigerants would be phased out. In nearly every effort to limit the emission of greenhouse gases at the federal or international level, HFCs have been lumped in with the compounds most traditionally viewed as pollutants: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxides, methane, and carbon monoxide. This is a bit unfair to HFCs since they are not emitted on purpose when used properly in the closed loop refrigeration system.

For years the U.S. EPA has been working with stakeholders to move the transition away from HFCs forward. And it appears most gas producers and OEMs are on board, because they recognized the change is coming. Over the next few years the EPA will begin to put in a plan to make for a smooth transition, but right now it’s uncertain what low global warming potential compounds may be the next widely used refrigerant will be.

Part of the Climate Action Plan alludes to actions by the U.S. EPA to curb emission and encourage private sector investment in low-emission technology by identifying and approving climate-friendly refrigerant alternatives.

The federal government will try to encourage the transition by purchasing cleaner alternatives to HFCs whenever feasible and transitioning over time to equipment that uses safer and more sustainable alternatives. The EPA will have to approve any new refrigerants to the Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) Program. We’ve already seen the EPA approve propane based refrigerants for very specified, non-residential uses, but some of those are being misused and the consequences can be very dangerous. Ironically, carbon dioxide, the measuring stick for greenhouse gas pollution, has shown some promise as a refrigerant.

The transition away from HFC refrigerants will take years to develop and then decades to implement. In the meantime the race to develop the next generation of safe, cost effective, and efficient refrigerants that can commercialized has begun. The transition will likely impose changes on larger commercial or industrial uses first before setting milestones that affect residential central air conditioners. But make no mistake, there will be changes and no one can rely on politics to delay their implementation.

Charlie McCrudden

Posted In: ACCA Now, Government

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