UK already in the lead on HFC phase down

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The UK is already well ahead of the curve on HFC phase down, but the 170 nation agreement secured in Rwanda will turn the spotlight onto refrigerant safety, according to Graeme Fox*.

The significance of the global agreement signed by 170 countries in Kigali this month to cap and then eliminate HFC gases used in air conditioning and refrigeration systems is a highly significant development in the war on global warming.

Even President Obama hailed it as “an ambitious and far reaching solution” with US Secretary of State John Kerry calling it “a monumental step forward”. Time will tell.

The timetable for the programme is so elongated that it will be decades before anyone can calculate if the Kigali Accord does achieve its overall aim of avoiding half a degree of global warming, but that’s one for a future generation of scientists to ponder. For us, in the here and now, the practicalities are pretty straightforward – and in the UK it changes very little. Our phase down programme is already underway, thanks to our membership of the EU, and is unlikely to be altered as a result of ‘Brexit’.

We are tied into an EU-led programme that sees a reduction this year to 93% of the amount of HFCs that were on the market last year falling steeply to just 63% of the 2014 amount by the end of 2017. HFC use has been banned in cars right across the EU since 2011.

Under the Kigali Accord, other developed countries, like the US, will start removing HFCs from use in 2019. Developing countries will start to restrict their use in 2024 and begin reductions in 2029 – although, confusingly, this second category includes China, which is the world’s largest manufacturer and consumer of HFCs.

A number of other countries, including India, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, will cap consumption in 2028 and start making cuts in usage in 2032. See what I mean about elongated? However, with any agreement on this scale there was always going to be a certain amount of ‘fudge’.

UK negotiator Clare Perry of the Environmental Investigation Agency said “compromises had to be made”, but rightly pointed out that getting 85% of developing countries committed to the early schedule starting in 2024 “ is a very significant achievement”.

She estimates that the deal will avoid more than 70 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions by 2050 “which will be close to avoiding a half a degree of warming”, which would be no small achievement.

As the use of air conditioning has increased worldwide, so consumption of HFC gases has soared – particularly in developing economies like India, Pakistan and, of course, China. Their use could overwhelm the goals set out in last year’s Paris Accord because the global warming potential of HFCs is potentially thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide.

In the UK, as a result of our adoption of the European F gas Regulations, we are already increasing the amount of alternatives we use with particular emphasis on the emerging Hydro Fluoro Olefins (HFO) market, but also including long-established fluids like hydrocarbons (HCs), ammonia and CO2.

The use of HFC alternatives does throw up new challenges and this will become increasingly apparent to other nations as the Kigali timetable is enacted.  Many of the replacement gases are toxic and/or flammable – and some operate at higher pressures. For example, HFOs are mildly flammable, but HCs are easier to ignite; so safety procedures for use, transportation and storage need to be considered in each case and become increasingly demanding and expensive.

John Smith, President of the British Refrigeration Association (BRA), believes the F gas Regulations will not work without the wider use of flammable refrigerants.  “The biggest challenge will be found in the air conditioning sector where there is no non-flammable alternative to R410A,” he said.

A new classification – A2L – has been created to designate ‘mildly flammable’ gases such as R1234yf, which has been deployed in many new cars since 2012 and will become mandatory for all new cars from January 2017.

Training in safe refrigerant handling will have to be sufficiently rigorous – worldwide –  to reflect this rapidly changing picture and the focus on this issue will intensify in the wake of Kigali.

International air conditioning manufacturers recently issued a stark warning about the danger of using the wrong type of refrigerant in their equipment. They added that refrigerants are carefully selected as an integral part of the overall system design taking into account safety; longevity of the equipment; energy efficiency; cost; and environmental impact.

There have been several serious incidents where flammable gas was used to replace R22 in domestic air conditioners in the US and a number of other countries around the world. The issue of counterfeit gas is another alarming trend, which will become particularly lucrative for smugglers as the price of HFCs rises in the face of a phase down – so the industry must be vigilant.

It is also important to note that HFOs are not suitable for use as ‘drop in’ retrofit gases – they can only be used with equipment that has been specifically designed to accept them. This does create barriers to their adoption as end users may be reluctant to invest in new equipment, but this is the type of conversation we will be having more regularly with clients in the coming months and years.

Another advantage we enjoy in the UK is the support of a long established refrigerant handling registration scheme Refcom that has helped to drive up professional standards across our industry. It has been a legal requirement since July 2009 for all businesses that install, maintain or service stationary equipment containing or designed to contain f gas refrigerants to obtain an F gas Company Certificate.

Refcom, which was set up by BESA (then the HVCA) in 1994, was appointed by the government as a certification body to provide this mandatory service for the refrigeration and air conditioning sectors.

It works with the Environment Agency to ensure the regulations are properly enforced and refrigerant reclamation carried out and now accounts for more than 80% of company certificates covering the UK refrigerant handling market. This makes it a key component of the UK’s efforts to control emissions of greenhouse gases and tackle global warming.

As a result of all that experience, we have been able to advise and support the programme to create a worldwide scheme for certifying refrigerant handling competence – an international ‘driving licence’ for refrigerant handlers – on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This will come into its own as more developing nations become subject to the Kigali agreement.

Safety was one of the motives behind the creation of the scheme because UNEP is increasingly concerned about the alternative and flammable gases ‘knowledge gap’ in many parts of the world. As the HFC phase down gathers momentum, this work will have to ramp up; creating a great opportunity to export UK refrigerant expertise around the world.

*Graeme Fox is senior mechanical engineer at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).

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