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Earth Day and Refrigerants: A Look Back — and Forward

Jennifer_Butsch Jennifer Butsch | Regulatory Affairs Manager

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

It’s Earth Day, which means we should all take a minute to reflect on how we can do our part to make the planet a greener place. In the world of commercial refrigeration, environmental initiatives and sustainability best practices typically focus on limiting the harmful effects of hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) and hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants. When these refrigerants leak into the atmosphere via direct emissions, their environmental impacts can be measured in terms of ozone depletion potential (ODP) and global warming potential (GWP).

But when considering the total equivalent warming impact (TEWI) of commercial refrigeration systems, direct emissions are only part of the equation. TEWI also considers indirect impacts, or the greenhouse gases generated from the energy consumed to run these systems — estimated to represent as much as 95 percent of the total climate impact. At Emerson, we take both energy efficiency and refrigerant GWP into consideration to evaluate the full lifecycle climate performance (LCCP) of a system and its fluids.

Montreal Protocol to complete R-22 phaseout

Today, most global refrigerant regulations are focused on phasing down high-GWP HFCs. But it’s important to remember that these activities have a precedent that’s more than three decades old. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol treaty aimed to phase out ozone-depleting substances (ODS), such as the commonly used HCFC, R-22. This global treaty was since ratified by 197 countries, including the United States, Canada and Mexico, all of whom have followed its recommended phaseout schedule.

The next step in this process will take place in 2020, when the production and import of R-22 will no longer be allowed under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act. It may come as a surprise to some, but there are still untold operators with older refrigeration systems that are currently charged with R-22. Unlike smartphones and other commodities that we change or upgrade every year,  commercial refrigeration equipment can have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years. This phaseout will likely lead to an increase in system retrofits in the near term, especially as operators exhaust their supplies of R-22.

Thankfully, there’s a good deal of evidence that since the removal of ozone-depleting substances from the environment began, the ozone layer is on the mend. Some estimates state that the ozone hole above Antarctica could close by the 2060s.

HFCs targeted for global warming potential

As the HCFC phaseout began decades ago, the industry transitioned to HFCs with very low ODP. Unfortunately, many of these have since been discovered to have varying degrees of GWP. In fact, the most common HFC used in commercial refrigeration is R-404A, which has a GWP of 3,922 and is considered on the high end of the GWP scale. It’s no surprise then that it was among the first refrigerants to be targeted for phasedown under the EPA’s Significant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) rules 20 and 21.

But per the 2018 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, the EPA no longer has the authority to regulate the use of refrigerants based on their GWP under the framework of the Clean Air Act. While we expect the EPA to soon provide clarity on the future of its HFC initiatives, there currently is no federal mechanism through which the proposed phasedown of high-GWP refrigerants will take place.

In the meantime, California has adopted the original EPA SNAP framework into law, and as of January 1, R-404A and R-507A are no longer allowable in many new commercial refrigeration applications. California is just one of 23 states or territories in the U.S. Climate Alliance that are making commitments to enforce similar climate protection initiatives. Currently, this growing alliance represents half of the U.S. population and more than 50 percent of the national GWP.

Globally, the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol seeks to expand the treaty’s scope from just ozone protection to addressing global warming by phasing down short-lived climate pollutants, including HFCs. While this amendment has yet to be ratified by the United States, it has achieved the required ratification of 20 member countries to take force — including Canada and the United Kingdom, among others. For participating countries, the Kigali Amendment took effect on January 1.

Exploring the alternatives

Because regulatory variances occur from state to region to country, there are vastly different levels of environmental awareness throughout our industry. While operators in California are cognizant of the state’s efforts to phase down HFCs, there are many U.S. areas where transitioning to lower-GWP refrigerants isn’t as high of a priority.

Regardless, many top retailers have begun the process of exploring low-GWP refrigerant options as part of their sustainability objectives. Not only do they have retrofit plans in place, some are even trialing alternative refrigerant architectures in their stores — with hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), HFO/HFC blends and natural refrigerants as leading options.

There are relatively minimal retrofit requirements when moving from R-404A to R-448A/R-449A — both A1 HFC/HFO blends — such as adding compressor cooling and other minor system changes. For a greenfield location or a complete system overhaul of an existing site, operators may consider one of many emerging low-GWP options, including:

  • Low-charge ammonia chillers on the roof
  • A2L (mildly flammable) blends in chillers on the roof and machine rooms
  • Distributed, small-charge systems with both A1 and A2L refrigerants
  • R-290 integrated cases outfitted with micro-distributed systems
  • CO2 transcritical and/or cascade systems using CO2 for low temperatures, and an HFO (or lower-GWP HFC) for medium temperatures

 

Refrigerant management best practices

As always, proper refrigerant management practices are important, regardless of the type of refrigerant used. Operators should start with a documented leak detection plan that includes the necessary tools and early-detection methods to identify and quickly respond to leaks. Leaks are not only bad for the environment; they also degrade refrigeration performance and system energy efficiencies.

With the new class of refrigerants, it’s especially important that technicians are trained to understand proper handling, charging and performance characteristics. In addition, as systems charged with higher-GWP HFCs eventually reach the end of their lifespans, it’s critical that service technicians follow proper recovery and disposal protocols.

Earth Day is a good time to reflect on the environmental progress our industry has made. At Emerson, we’ll continue to support sustainability objectives with compressors, components and systems that are both environmentally responsible and economically viable.

How to Transition Into the Future With HFO Blend Refrigerants

AndrePatenaude_Blog_Image Andre Patenaude | Director, Food Retail Marketing & Growth Strategy, Cold Chain

Emerson Commercial & Residential Solutions

I was recently interviewed for an article in the ACHR News, “HFO Sightings: Refrigerant Retrofits Becoming More Common in Supermarkets,” which discusses steps that can smooth a supermarket owner’s transition to sustainable and compliant HFO blend refrigerants.

How to Transition Into the Future With HFO Blend Refrigerants

What refrigerant changes are coming, and which should you choose?

The R-22 refrigerant is in its final days, and will be officially phased out at the end of next year. There’s also a good chance that hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants will also be phased down in the U.S. in the years ahead, as their use continues to be limited in different countries and regions around the globe. Many supermarket owners see the writing on the wall and are starting to transition to lower-global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants — particularly if they are uncertain about counting on the availability of HFCs or concerned about a potential rise in the cost of these refrigerants. Others simply seek to transition to more eco-friendly refrigerants that align with corporate sustainability objectives.

That is why many store owners are choosing to retrofit their existing equipment to use hydrofluoroolefin (HFO) blends, which compare well with HFCs in terms of performance but offer advantages in the forms of energy efficiency, environmental-friendliness and future availability.

However, HFO blends are not drop-in refrigerants. Equipment usually has to be modified before it can be used. Not all equipment is equally easy to retrofit, and not all HFO blends are the same. The ACHR News article lays out clear guidelines to help you navigate among HFO blend options and retrofit processes.

No two retrofits and no two refrigerants are alike

As I point out in the article, HFOs have very different characteristics than HFC or hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) refrigerants. Some HFOs are classified as A1 (non-flammable) while others fall into the A2L (mildly flammable) category; many have temperature glide characteristics to consider. In addition, many HFO blends have been developed to replace specific HFC refrigerants — for example, R-448A and R-449A are designed to replace R-404A — and there are small capacity and efficiency differences that may vary based on the specific refrigeration application. That said, with the right RFO blend and the right modifications, many systems will continue to operate reliably for years after the retrofits. The age and condition of the equipment should determine if they are good candidates for a refrigerant retrofit.

Making the change

If you are interested in transitioning to an HFO blend, it’s essential to find out if your equipment is compatible with a given blend. There are specific HFO blends designed to replace the most common HFCs, depending on the type of equipment and the refrigeration application. However, not all HFCs can be replaced with an HFO, and in some instances, equipment may require major modifications.

For that reason, you need to consider the specific characteristics of each refrigeration application, the replacement HFO blend, and their impact on system performance to make sure you continue operating within your equipment’s design specifications. For example, a new blend could cause a higher discharge temperature, which could require investing in supplemental compressor cooling. That’s why you should consult with the equipment manufacturer and your refrigerant vendor about compatibility before making any transition.

Manufacturers such as Emerson conduct stringent R&D and testing of RFO blends in their compressors and other components before they are deemed “ready to use” in a retrofit. Because you may be changing the refrigerant for which the units were initially designed, you should also ask about the status of your warranties and the potential impacts before commencing a retrofit.

When you’re ready, the ACHR News article provides a more detailed guide to the retrofit process for you and your refrigeration contractor, from evaluating the system type, design and application for a compatible HFO blend, to charging a unit with its new refrigerant and fine-tuning the equipment.

Retrofitting the future

As regulations surrounding refrigerants continue to evolve, most retailers recognize that moving to HFO blends is one of their best long-term solutions for a large installed base of refrigeration equipment. With a range of safe and environmentally sustainable HFO blends available as replacement refrigerants for HFC-based systems, converting your systems to low-GWP HFO blends is the quickest and cheapest way to achieve a large overall reduction in your future carbon footprint.

HFCs and the Montreal Protocol

In February, the EPA hosted a stakeholder meeting to discuss a proposal for HFC refrigerants in the Montreal Protocol.  The United States, along with our neighbors to the north and south, will likely propose an amendment to add HFCs to the Montreal Protocol.  The goal is to carefully and slowly phase down HFC production, but not a complete phase out.   The phase-down schedules are still being discussed, as is the issue of what to do with HFO refrigerants.  Large developing countries such as India, China and Brazil may oppose universal HFC phase-downs.

Most of what our industry does with refrigerants today stems from the Montreal Protocol.  The air conditioning and refrigeration industry has supported global efforts to protect the environment by introducing non-chlorine-containing refrigerants. The Montreal Protocol, established in 1987 and later revised, provides guidelines for individual country legislation, setting timetables for the phase-out of chlorine containing refrigerants.  But today there is more attention on climate change and reducing greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is by far the most significant greenhouse gas, produced mainly by burning fossil fuels for electrical generation and transportation. Since refrigeration equipment consumes energy, energy-efficient designs are important to reducing carbon dioxide production.

The effort started with an emphasis on cutting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants. Work in the late 1980s and early 1990s centered on eliminating CFCs which were used in foam blowing, cleaning and refrigeration applications and centrifugal chillers for air conditioning. By the end of 1995, developed countries stopped producing CFCs, and they are no longer used in new equipment today. These actions have significantly reduced atmospheric chlorine and are starting to repair the ozone layer.

In a recent issue of the NEWS (ACHR), I mentioned “The U.S., Canada and Mexico have proposed an amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address global warming with a phase down of HFCs. This effort has been in place for a few years now. While there are 107 other countries supporting it, there are other, more developing countries like India, China and Brazil who oppose. One barrier often mentioned is that the Montreal Protocol has historically had a very clear mission of addressing ozone depletion, but climate change is outside of its charter.”  Read the entire article at: http://digital.bnpmedia.com/display_article.php?id=1366941

However this plays out in 2013, we’ll be watching international, federal, and state regulations on greenhouse gases and working within in the industry to make smart decisions for today and the future.

Rajan Rajendran, Ph.D
Vice President, Engineering Services and Sustainability
Emerson Climate Technologies

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