RAC’s F-Gas Question time finds significant drop-off in market demand for R404A, in favour of low-GWP options, but concerns over energy demand and counterfeit trade remain
A rapid drop in industry reliance for R404A refrigerant in favour of lower GWP alternatives has shown the effectiveness of EU F-Gas regulation to tackle HFC use. However, experts warn that industry still must address major challenges around energy efficiency and counterfeit trade.
These were among key conclusions of the latest RAC Magazine F-Gas Question Time event held on 9 October in London.
The event, sponsored by Opteon from Chemours, highlighted recent technology breakthroughs, as well as a number of prominent challenges facing industry as a result of the regulation. This is vitally important as the first service bans come into force from January 2020.
Policy expert Ray Gluckman noted that the introduction in January 2018 of a significant quota cut to the amount of HFC allowed in the market had led to major price volatility for higher-GWP refrigerant, such as R404A, which has been ubiquitous in the refrigeration industry for some years. But he said the significant price rises seen in late 2017 and early 2018 had since calmed, apparently as a result of the industry moving towards alternative products with lower GWP levels.
Mr Gluckman pointed to the significant retrofitting of R404A systems at a rapid rate as one such example. He added, “It is remarkable how quickly demand for R404A has fallen. There are reasons for that which are also linked to activity, such as the rapid development of refrigerant reclaim and recycling markets. Reclaim is the right way to do it, that is when you are processing refrigerant and chemically testing it, so you know what you have got. Recycling is more informal, where contractors are recovering gas using just the simple filtering or moisture removal that’s in a recovery machine and putting gas into another system.”
Mr Gluckman said that alongside retrofilling R404A systems, the move to low-GWP had been hastened by the introduction of new technologies to market that are specifically designed for lower GWP refrigerants.
Another vital change to the market was the increasing acceptance of a much wider number of alternative refrigerant products such as the HFO blends R448A and R449A. he added.
As well as refrigeration technology changes, air conditioning manufacturers had almost unanimously committed to introducing systems designed for the low-GWP R32. The refrigerant is an A2L, with a lower level of flammability, and Mr Gluckman noted that installers had accommodated the different handling requirements without any major problem.
Mr Gluckman added that the drive towards using lower-GWP refrigerant was not without challenges. One such example was the “awkward question” of illegal imports into Europe that Mr Gluckman noted was an ongoing source of considerable industry concern
He said, “it’s likely that the UK is less affected than other parts of Europe, but there is certainly a knock-on effect for the UK. Concerns about illegal imports are significant and they could be masking the ease with which we have achieved the quota cut. If some or all of those illegal imports can be stemmed, then it could be that refrigerants are in much shorter supply than we believe.”
Mr Gluckman warned that the additional quota cuts due to come into effect by 2021 could also result in further price volatility - the 2021 cut is effectively removing 40 per cent of the existing HFCs from the market.
F-Gas Question Time also saw a consensus among panellists over the importance of addressing the theme of energy efficiency.
Mr Gluckman said that the focus on pushing industry towards lower GWP products had to be balanced against ensuring that the cooling technologies handling the refrigerant were also efficient and not requiring significant additional amounts of energy to operate - which would increase carbon at the power station.
He said, “There is no point lowering GWP, if the energy goes up - getting that balance right is very difficult.”
Mark Hughes business development manager for Chemours called for more industry understanding of energy efficiency of cooling systems.
He said, “The concern is that we need to avoid the potentially knee jerk reaction that might come where you just try and go for a low GWP product without thinking of some of the other operational consequences.”
Mr Hughes said that Chemours had effectively created a consultancy service for customers to help educate industry on considering energy efficiency impacts in planning for their specific market needs.
Panellists at the Question time event noted that the F-Gas regulation had made very little mention of energy efficiency in its requirements and key goals. However, there was acceptance that the technical requirements of energy demand in cooling technologies was covered in European Ecodesign rules. The panel said that theoretically the regulations should run parallel to each other, but they were disconnected, creating some complexity in how the issues are balanced.
Brian Churchyard, senior manager of construction design standards with retailer Asda identified cost pressures as the company’s greatest challenge in addressing energy efficiency and the demands of F-Gas regulation.
He said that this challenge related not only to the cost of technology, or of refrigerant or maintenance, but to the overall lifecycle costs of a solution.
He said that the competitiveness of supermarket retail meant that ensuring value to customers had a major impact on key regulation such as F-Gas: “When we are trying to identify opportunities to meet those regulatory restrictions, we have to look at how we continue to do that in the most cost-effective way and demonstrate value to the business.”
He said Asda was trying to ensure a more holistic approach to planning its cooling needs:“That just doesn’t consider initial costs, but also looks at maintenance and the other things I said. You then layer into that the challenges and expectations from an environmental perspective and all of a sudden you have quite a complex scenario of how you address not just one regulation, but actually how you met your business objectives as the same time.”