Refrigerants: Cooling that will make you sweat
By Pat Dowling
Effective management of existing refrigerants and adoption of alternative refrigerants have the potential to reduce over 100 gigatons of CO2 emissions cumulatively from 2020-2050, according to the Project Drawdown. The cooling industry accounts for around 10% of GHG emissions, which is 3X the amount produced by aviation and shipping combined. Installed cooling capacity is expected to reach 2.5x current capacity by 2050 as the planet warms and demand for cooling accelerates in China and India.
You Might Be Interested If...
You are fascinated with buildings, food supply chains, and bipartisan climate policy
You are stimulated by "unsexy" problems, don't mind working for or with large corporations, and are particularly interested in the developing world
You plan on purchasing or disposing of a fridge or A/C unit at some point in your life (seriously)
Solution Summary (What You Should Know)
Cooling systems, like refrigerators and air conditioning units, contain chemicals, or refrigerants, that readily absorb heat from their environment. These refrigerants cycle through cooling systems, absorbing heat from inside the unit or building and releasing heat outside of the system before being cycled back to begin the cooling process again.
While cooling systems are a major source of energy consumption, especially in warm climates, the release of refrigerant chemicals into the atmosphere also causes significant warming.
Refrigerants are widely used as working fluid in commercial refrigeration systems, household appliances, industrial cooling systems, air conditioning systems onboard all modes of transportation, and refrigerated containers used for shipping perishable goods, like COVID-19 vaccines.
CFCs & HCFCs & (Polar) Bears! Oh My!
The most common type of refrigerants used to be chlorofluorocarbons ("CFCs") and hydrochlorofluorocarbons ("HCFCs"). In the 1970s, scientific evidence began to show that CFCs and HCFCs were depleting the Earth’s ozone layer. The US took a leadership role in advocating for sharp reductions in the use of CFCs, HCFCs, and other ozone-depleting substances.
"Perhaps the single most successful international environmental agreement..."
Finalized in 1987, the Montreal Protocol is a global treaty to protect the ozone layer by phasing out ozone-depleting substances. The agreement, which was unanimously ratified by the US Senate in 1988, has received bipartisan support over the past thirty years and has received support from the vast majority of U.S. industry as well as environmental advocates.
Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) were developed as replacements for CFCs for use in cooling systems. While they do not deplete the ozone layer, HFCs are potent greenhouse gases. The global warming potential (GWP) of HFCs is 1,000 to almost 15,000 times greater than carbon dioxide. The use of HFCs is expected to explode as the penetration of cooling systems rises in developing countries. For example, only 5% of households in India have AC units, compared to nearly 90% in the US. As the climate warms and demand for refrigeration and air conditioning rises globally, HFC use will continue to grow - a sad irony.
Run it back?
In October 2016, Parties to the Montreal Protocol adopted the Kigali Amendment to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs worldwide. Through this amendment, the world will phase out HFCs starting with high-income countries in 2019, some low-income countries in 2024, and the rest in 2028. A global HFC phasedown is expected to avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by 2100.
US response to the Kigali Amendment (AIM Act)
Included in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the AIM Act directs the EPA to phase down the production and consumption of HFCs in the US by 85% over the next 15 years. The AIM Act, effective November 4, 2021, has an estimated net present value of $272.7 billion from 2022 through 2050.
Key Players (Where Should You Work?)
Other innovators/startups: Phononic, Dandelion, ICE Energy, BlocPower, Broad Group, Axion Exergy, 75F, dPoint Technologies
Refrigerant suppliers: Honeywell, Chemours, Linde, Dow, DuPont, Mexichem, Arkema, AGC, ASPEN Refrigerants, Global Refrigerants, Harp, SRF Limited, Tazzetti S.p.A, Hudson Technologies
Industry Coalitions: National Association of Manufacturers, American Chemistry Council, and the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute.
Note: The recent HFC regulation was actually supported by these industry groups.
Manufacturers of refrigeration products (refrigeration systems, A/C units, etc.): Carrier, Daikin, Danfoss Group, Emerson Electric, Evapco, GEA Group AG, Johnson Controls, Ingersoll Rand
End Users of Refrigeration products
Cold Chain Players: Agro Merchant Group, Preferred Freezer Services, Nordic Logistics and Warehousing, Cold Chain Technologies, Creopack, Cryopack Industries, Cold Box Express
Grocery store chains: Walmart, Krogers, Albertsons, Publix, Meijer, Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe’s, Safeway
Alternative cooling methods: Airedale International Air Conditioning, Brentwood Industries, Baltimore Aircoil Company, GEA Group AG, Hamon Group S.A., SPX Corp, Schneider Electric SE, Star Cooling Tower, Sainsbury
Energy Efficiency-as-a-Service: Johnson Controls, CBRE, Carbon Lighthouse, etc.
Opportunities for Innovation
Super-efficient cooling - Efficiency gains in advanced vapor compression technology, alternative cooling such as evaporative cooling, solid-state cooling, heat pumps
Alternative Refrigerants - Develop and market new refrigeration systems with low-warming, non-HFC substances. Substitutes are already on the market, but have their own drawbacks. Non-HFC, natural refrigerants include propane and isobutane (flammable), ammonium (toxic), and carbon dioxide (high pressure required).
Smart building design - Improved insulation, ventilation, reduced glazing, passive cooling systems, use of building automation systems, denser building materials
Business model innovations - New business models that can create market incentives to properly recover, reclaim/recycle, and destroy refrigerants at end-of-life could have a significant impact (e.g., "cooling-as-a-service" or bulk procurement within the cold chain).
Leak Detection and Response - Controlling leakages of refrigerants from existing appliances through responsible management practices (e.g., remote monitoring of HFC levels and refrigerant output).
Disposal - 90% of refrigerant emissions happen at end of life, so effective disposal of those currently in circulation is essential. Some revenue can be generated from the resale of recovered refrigerant gases, but the costs to establish and operate recovery, destruction, and leak avoidance currently outweigh the financial benefit. Project Drawdown estimates a net cost of $629.4 billion by 2050.
Policy enforcement - Strict enforcement of the AIM Act would have a significant impact on reducing emissions. Additional policy incentives might include updates to building codes, vehicle efficiency standards around AC units, subsidized retailer rebate programs, etc.