407 refrigerant canisters

Is it the End of the HFC Phasedown?

Oct. 4, 2017
In the wake of a DC Circuit Court ruling, will HVACR end-users continue on the path to low-GWP refrigerants or do they slow down those efforts? Operating on a global scale, their decision should be clear.

The recent DC Circuit Court ruling (available below) that strips the EPA of some of its authority to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) would appear to be a game changer, reversing all the recent efforts to move away from high global warming gasses.  Or is it?  If you haven’t been following this court ruling and its aftermath, here’s what you’ve missed: The Court told EPA that it overstepped its authority and should not have taken the actions it did to delist certain HFCs. They told EPA to rewrite the rules they had previously issued related to HFCs in autos, refrigeration systems and chillers, among other applications. EPA had an opportunity to appeal the ruling, but chose not to. That is not surprising, since the current EPA Administrator has said in the past that EPA has gone too far in regulating industry. Two refrigerant manufacturers and the National Resources Defense Council have asked for a review of the ruling, so the jury is still out.  This story is likely to take months, if not years, to play out.

End users, owners, contractors, distributors and manufacturers now have decisions to make: do they continue on the path to low-GWP refrigerants or do they slow down those efforts?  In this ambiguous period, what certainty can the industry count on?  Large investments hang in the balance.

Actually, the decision of what to do next should be quite easy.

First, it is abundantly clear that the State of California will issue its own set of rules for the phasedown of HFCs.  We are likely to see their proposal this year. Furthermore, those rules are likely to be more stringent than those of the EPA. With one-eighth of the US population and one-seventh of the nation’s GDP, California’s HFC phasedown will become the de-facto national standard.  Other states may even follow California’s lead.  For example, California has brought 14 other states, representing over one-third of US population into the US Climate Alliance. These would seem to be the leading candidates to restrict HFC use on a multi-state level.  Canada continues its SNAP-like approach. So, an HFC phasedown is still likely in much of North America,

Second, the US plays in a global market. The world agreed on a revision of the Montreal Protocol called the Kigali Amendment and that international treaty will go into effect in a little over a year from now. Most of the world is expected to observe the phasedown of HFCs called for in the Kigali Amendment. To have the force of law in the US, the Kigali Amendment will have to be ratified by the US Senate. 

Fortunately, there already is a variety of low-GWP refrigerants being sold and equipment to accommodate them, especially in refrigeration applications.  HFO refrigerants with GWPs of less than 600 and hydrocarbon refrigerants with GWPs in the single digits are being used in new self-contained refrigeration equipment.  Carbon dioxide —CO2 — systems have gained acceptance for new supermarket systems.  In addition, the self-contained systems with low GWP refrigerants can be cost neutral and cost less to operate than their traditional counterparts.  Also, while CO2 supermarket systems do cost more, their energy efficiency provides life cycle cost benefits over the systems of the past.

Contractors should continue to make sure that technicians receive training on the new families of refrigerants, particularly those that are flammable.  Technicians will see a bigger variety of refrigerants than ever before and should be prepared to treat each refrigerant appropriately.  Continue to observe the recovery/recycling/reclamation rules, which now cover HFCs. 

While the ultimate results of the district court case are unknown, the HVAC world has plenty of indications of what awaits.  The future points to a continued movement to low GWPs and higher efficiencies. The wise contractor will stay the course.

Mark Menzer is director of public affairs for Danfoss North America.