In both the U.S. and European Union (EU), an increased focus on low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants is shaping regulations and prompting an evolution in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) refrigeration equipment designs. While the refrigeration industry attempts to balance ever-tightening GWP restrictions and settle on the next generation of refrigerant alternatives, differing regulatory conditions in the U.S. and EU are causing each region to develop unique stances on the issues at hand.
Consumer demand for energy-efficient AC and refrigeration options in the U.S., combined with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) clean air regulations, are driving technological advances in equipment. With the introduction of the Kyoto Protocol in 2006, the EU is grappling with even stricter environmental initiatives, seeking to lower greenhouse gases by enforcing equipment efficiencies and establishing a gradual phasing out of fluorinated gas (F-gases) and refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
Regardless of the region, the move toward stricter energy regulations and the dynamic discussion about refrigerants stems from the desires to curb pollution and minimize environmental consequences. Should there be any doubt about the fluidity and relevance of this debate, remember that only a few short years ago the emphasis was on eliminating chorine-based refrigerants that were responsible for ozone depletion. Having been all but phased out, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are now only a small part of the conversation.
A Closer Look at the EU’s and United States’ Regulatory Stances on HFCs
HFCs are the most common group of man-made F-gases, and are widely used in a variety of products, appliances and applications in the refrigeration and air-conditioning sectors. Originally seen as viable substitutes for ozone-depleting HCFCs, HFCs are non-flammable, recyclable and energy efficient. However, HFCs have a high GWP and, thus, have been subject to regulatory attention since the Montreal Protocol.
While there is currently no international agreement on the regulation of HFCs, the EU enacted its own F-Gas Regulation in 2007. This regulation has helped the EU and member states enforce F-gas handling procedures, including: better containment and recovery; personnel training and certification; production reporting, import and export data; labeling of products and equipment containing F-gases; and even prohibition in particular applications.1
F-gases account for 2% of the EU’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. But, in contrast to the reduction of all other greenhouse gases, F-gas emissions have risen by 60% there since 1970. What’s more, equipment and appliances containing F-gases can have lifespans of up to 50 years.2
While the U.S. is keeping a keen eye on the shifting regulatory landscape in the EU, it continues
to pursue indirect GWP reduction in earnest.
In contrast, the United States’ stance toward HFCs is much less definitive. While it has recognized the high-GWP concerns of F-gases and proposed a phase-down of HFCs by 2030, the U.S. currently favors the efficient performance and cost advantages of HFC refrigerants (such as R410A) over the downside associated with higher pressured alternatives and direct GWP (from refrigerant leakage).
And while the U.S. is keeping a keen eye on the shifting regulatory landscape in the EU, it continues to pursue indirect GWP reduction in earnest — striving to increase system and equipment efficiencies, reduce energy consumption and ultimately lower carbon dioxide production. Considered within the larger environmental picture, indirect GWP, as the result of overall energy consumption, has a much greater contribution to climate change than direct GWP.
In Europe, the conversation has recently shifted from containment and prevention of greenhouse gas emissions toward more drastic measures. Continual F-gas regulation reviews indicate that the near-term reductions will ultimately lead to banning or eliminating some of these high-GWP offenders altogether. This trend has accelerated the “alternative refrigerant” discussion, as the industry seeks lower-GWP options that manufacturers can transition to without sacrificing safety and efficient performance. A definitive passing of proposed F-gas bans in the EU would certainly accelerate the regulatory movement in the U.S. For now at least, the U.S. is adopting a wait-and-see approach.
OEM Focus on Improved Energy Efficiencies
With today’s increased emphasis on climate change and reduction of greenhouse gases, manufacturers are not only required to engineer systems with alternate refrigerants in mind, they are also tasked to produce energy-efficient designs in an effort to lower indirect GWP. In essence, manufacturers are addressing indirect GWP as a function of the efficiency of the equipment they produce.
Compressors comprise the single largest energy consumer in most refrigeration systems and can be responsible for up to 60% of a system’s total energy consumption. As a result, compressor technology remains the focus of OEM innovations.
In the U.S., compressor technology is being guided by several existing and proposed energy reduction regulations. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has mandated increases in efficiency levels across a variety of commercial equipment. In addition, state and federal energy efficiency standards, along with various incentive programs, have prompted OEMs to redesign many of their products periodically.
In the U.S., compressor technology is being guided by several
existing and proposed energy reduction regulations.
New models contain technology originally designed to support the need for chlorine-free systems, with a wide variety of displacements available for multiple applications. Of these, scroll compressors and electronic-commutated motors are the most energy-efficient compressor and motor options.
Scroll compressors are effective in adapting to higher-pressure refrigerants like R410A and more standard pressure refrigerants like R407A, R407C and R407F. Although design challenges exist, scroll technology is more easily adapted to the next generation of higher pressure refrigerants and offers superior efficiencies than other compressor types. In contrast, most reciprocating designs will require extensive retooling and redesigning to handle higher pressures.
Digitally modulated, semi-hermetic compressors are able to match compressor capacity to the load requirements of their application. With their ability to modulate infinitely between 10 and 100% of rated capacity, these compressors match the system load requirements precisely, while consuming less energy and increasing the lives of the compressor and other system components. Additional innovations — including system controllers, on-board component diagnostics and monitoring software — can also play roles in reducing overall energy consumption.
Manufacturers have responded to the F-gas regulations by designing systems that lessen the risk of leakage, lower the refrigerant charge, and simplify leak testing by reducing the number of joints. Any equipment sold with HFC refrigerants must be properly labeled, showing the type and quantity of the refrigerant within the system.
Transition Leaves Many Questions Unanswered
While it’s unclear what future energy efficiency standards will be enforced or which low-GWP refrigerants will gain prominence, it is clear that the U.S. and EU must be prepared to adapt quickly to new regulations — and manufacturers must develop systems now to prepare for an uncertain regulatory future. Some OEMs are already far down this path, taking a holistic approach that recognizes the environmental and economic impacts of available choices throughout the equipment’s life cycle.
1. Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute.
2. European Commission, Climate Action, Policies, Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases.
Dr. Rajan Rajendran is vice president, Engineering Services and Sustainability, Emerson Climate Technologies. He is responsible for technical support to OEMs and end users for the company’s refrigeration business, including the design services and testing businesses.