Global agreement on 16 October to phase down refrigerants with high global warming potential has been welcomed in Australia, but how prepared is the industry and what are the issues surrounding natural refrigerants?
Australia and other developed nations were this month part of the agreement reached at a Montreal Protocol meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons by 85 per cent by 2036, with developing countries to achieve this reduction by 2045-47.
The agreement means Australian is also adopting international standards for safety in using their replacements, ahead of import restrictions.
The move has been welcomed by the airconditioning, heating and ventilation industry’s peak body, AIRAH.
HFCs are currently the main gases used in more than 45 million pieces of refrigeration and airconditioning equipment in Australia, and contribute up to two per cent of Australia’s carbon equivalent emissions.
The government is imposing a declining cap on imports of HFCs from 2018.
Worldwide import caps are expected to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of 72 billion tonnes by 2050 – roughly one third of current annual global emissions.
The release of the new standards for refrigeration safety complements the agreement, by setting out the necessary requirements for design, installation, maintenance, operation, repair and end-of-life recovery for non-HFC refrigerants. The new standards supersede the current AS/NZS 1677 series.
AIRAH first proposed the adoption of ISO standards for refrigeration safety in 2010, AIRAH chief executive Tony Gleeson said.
“PRIME – the HVAC&R industry strategy to transition to low emissions – identified early on that AS/NZS 1677 had to be reviewed,” Mr Gleeson said.
“In response to stakeholders’ needs Standards Australia worked closely with industry and government, and supported PRIME to achieve this major milestone.”
A super greenhouse gas problem
Phil Wilkinson, AIRAH executive manager government relations and technical services, said that the Montreal Protocol had successfully reduced the use of ozone-depleting refrigerants, however the replacements had created a “super greenhouse gas problem.”
The agreement is what the Australian HVACR industry needed, Mr Wilkinson said. It created certainty and sets out the timeframes for compliance – and it also provides a situation where leaders in the industry can innovate with alternative refrigerants and technology.
The emissions in Australia from the HFC refrigerants are only one to two per cent direct emissions from the refrigerants themselves, he said.
The “massive issue” in terms of emissions reductions is energy efficiency because HFCs use much more energy than other refrigerants when they are in operation.
Systems need to perform in a way that is energy efficient and so reduce indirect emissions, and operators need to ensure refrigerant leakage is minimised, since leakage reduces efficiency and therefore increases indirect emissions.
(It is also illegal to knowingly let refrigerant gases leak).
This holistic approach is a fundamental part of the industry’s PRIME initiative, which covers the entire industry lifecycle, Mr Wilkinson said.
“We are seeing alternative refrigerants and new blends of synthetic refrigerants including HFOs [Hydrofluro-Olefins] coming into the market, and these alternative refrigerants have toxicity, flammability and high pressure issues,” he said.
“Industry needs to get on top of these aspects so we can transition to a lower emission future quicker and more safely.”
He said AIRAH was now pushing “up and down the supply chain” to properly approach plant room design and ventilation because of these new risks.
The new safety standards complement the HFC phase down agreement by making the transition smoother.
He said industry feedback on the standards that apply to natural refrigerants is that they are restrictive, suggesting those incorporating them into HVACR installations may need to work with international codes of practice as well that can also demonstrate compliance with workplace health and safety legislation.
The Australian industry has a good track record for change.
“The industry did well transitioning away from the ozone depleting gases and now the next big challenge is to shift to low emission refrigerants,” Mr Wilkinson said.
“However, there is still a lot of work ahead of us. Leaders in the industry are already ahead of the curve in offering alternative solutions.”
He said the vast majority of people in industry will only now be waking up to the fact they have got to change and will be looking for training and guidance.
“The industry needs to become more professional – with these new safety risks and environmental imperatives we must step up, and the cowboys out there must be weeded out.”
Mr Wilkinson said the agreement provided an opportunity for developing nations to “leapfrog” the use of HFCs, as new installations can utilise the low global warming potential alternatives, both synthetic and natural.
Australia could be in a great position to support that leapfrog, he said.
- Read more details of the HFC phase-down here