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Conference review: HFCs prove a hot topic

Jeremy Pursehouse reports from the RAC Alternative Cooling Conference on the debate over the future of HFCs

While many alternative methods of cooling were presented in Earls Court at the end of March, the main theme was undoubtedly a passionate and strongly argued debate over the place of HFCs in the current and future rac industry.

The argument is a well rehearsed one, which surfaces every time it is proposed to ban a refrigerant on the grounds that it causes global warming and ozone depletion.

The case for HFCs is that they are more efficient than the practical alternatives and only become environmentally harmful if they escape to atmosphere; so the answer, say supporters, is not to ban it, but to concentrate on cutting leakage.

The case for the defence was launched in the very first presentation from Graeme Fox, chairman of the Technical and Environment Committee of European contractors’ association AREA.

“The most important aspect to consider nowadays when designing a system or a building services installation is that of energy consumption and efficiency. The biggest contributor worldwide to greenhouse gas emissions is power consumption in buildings,” said Mr Fox.

“To this end,” he continued, “engineers now consider the TEWI, or total equivalent warming impact, of a system. This takes into account the GWP, the energy efficiency and life cycle costs of running the equipment. Yet a number of organisations involved in the debate about what refrigerant is right for what application seem to concentrate solely on the GWP.”

While agreeing that HFCs have a relatively high GWP, he contended that if the Government gives the industry the teeth to enforce the new F-Gas Regulation, then the direct emissions of HFCs to atmosphere will be negligible or near to zero.

In support of this view he cited Holland, where a strictly enforced mandatory registration scheme, introduced 16 years ago, saw a massive drop in leakage rates from 20 per cent to less than 1 per cent.

“The point here,” said Mr Fox, “is that, assuming the F-Gas Regulation works – and I see no reason to believe it won’t – then the direct emissions of HFCs to atmosphere will be negligible or near to zero. This makes the GWP largely irrelevant.”

If this is accepted then the best refrigerant can be chosen for each system, based solely on energy efficiency. While he agreed that, in some cases, this will mean CO2, ammonia or hydrocarbons, in other cases the best solution will be HFCs; particularly, he said, in “the huge range” of medium to high temperature, medium duty systems serving shops, offices, small server rooms and homes.

“We are all concerned about climate change and its effects, but we have to remember to keep a perspective on the issue.” Graeme Fox

“HFCs account for less than 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Switching off every air conditioner or refrigerator in the world will not save the planet. A worldwide ban on all HFC gases will not save the planet.

“It is ridiculous of the European Commissioners, and indeed many of our UK politicians, to contemplate banning a range of gases that any serious engineer sees as part of the solution, not the problem.”

Graeme Fox

HFCs - an aid not a hindrance

In his presentation, Mike Nankivell, from the F-Gas Implementation Group, supported Graeme Fox’s argument, pointing out that HFCs have actually helped to reduce the refrigeration and air conditioning industry’s contribution to worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

“In 1990,” he said, “CFCs represented about 25 per cent of potential worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. In refrigeration and air conditioning HFCs today are estimated to be responsible for only about 0.5 per cent of such emissions. This is expected to be less than 2 per cent by 2050, despite the increasing demand for refrigeration and air conditioning.”

Mr Nankivell pointed out that the primary objective of the regulation is to reduce emissions of F-gases by containment and responsible use; not by imposing bans.

In his presentation on Improving Environmental Performance Through Low GWP Refrigerants, Dr Abdennacer Achaichia, from Honeywell Fluorine Products EMEA, added his view: “GWP is an easy thing to legislate against, but you really have to look at the whole lifecycle of the system.”

Mr Fox widened the debate by pointing out that more than 65 per cent of refrigerant leaks are from automobiles. “R134a accounts for the majority of refrigerant in the atmosphere, so emissions is really an issue for the automotive industry. When R134a is phased out, 65 per cent of emissions will stop anyway.”

‘Chilling facts’

The fight back from those who want to see HFCs phased out more quickly was led by Fionnuala Walravens of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), whose organisation believes the problems of direct emissions are being vastly underestimated.

“You can bury your head in the sand and say ‘it is a leakage problem and we are dealing with it,’ but in my view, we need to tackle high GWP refrigerants,” she said.

In its report called ‘Chilling Facts: the big supermarket refrigeration scandal,’ the EIA said that it found that direct emissions of refrigerant represented 19 to 33 per cent of a store’s total carbon footprint. It also says it found that the ratio of indirect to direct emissions was 1:1.65, and that the climate impacts of refrigerant leakage was over 1.5 times greater than those associated with energy use.

“We don’t have room for high-GWP HFCs in our society,” Fionnuala Walravens

The EIA wants to see swifter introduction of natural refrigerants, she said.

“It’s working in the rest of northern Europe, why not here?” she asked.

Naturals, she argued, are expected to take over in three to five years. Legislation on HFC use in Austria and Denmark, and on leakage in the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as HFC taxation, has already increased the uptake of alternatives and decreased the use of F-gas by 40-50 per cent.

The Q&A session following Ms Walravens’ presentation saw very divided opinions in evidence.

Mr Fox pointed out that since two thirds of emissions come from vehicle units, lobby groups were focusing on the wrong sector.

“If you properly address leakage rates in supermarkets,” added Mr Nankivell, “we will see massive improvements in energy efficiency, beyond any alternatives you can think of.”

Chairing the debate, RAC Editor Andrew Gaved, said: “What the industry wants is enough time to show the effort it has put into reducing leaks is going to work.”

But Ms Walravens countered: “The industry claims leakage isn’t happening, but that clearly is not the case, so we need to concentrate on naturals.”

It fell to Graham Hazell of Colt International to bring the various strands of the conference together in his presentation entitled ‘Alternative Methods or Alternative Refrigerants, or Both?

In doing so he added yet another element to the discussion: “Can we improve the emissions situation by using less refrigerant in the first place?”

His proposal was to stay with HFCs for their efficiency, thus minimising power station emissions, while tackling the leaks and at the same time using water as a secondary refrigerant and reducing HFC as much as possible in the outdoor unit itself. This has the added advantage of being able to replace the outdoor unit, with a more efficient one, without replacing the whole installation.