As F-Gas gathers pace, something must be done
| June 01, 2017
President Donald Trump today announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement — thus aligning the U.S. for probably the only time ever with Syria and Nicaragua as the only major nations opposed to the 195-nation commitment to cutting greenhouse gases.
Meanwhile, here in the U.K., a more pragmatic climate change initiative — the European Union's F-Gas regulations — is running into a bit of a roadblock. The refrigeration industry continues to be exercised by the threat of higher-GWP refrigerants either getting very expensive or becoming very scarce, or both.
I warned back in April that these were challenging times. But now after speaking with several industry stakeholders, I think we need to up the threat level to "critical" — to borrow a military term.
To recap quickly: The EU F-Gas regulations have set in place a dual mechanism for reducing use of higher-GWP refrigerants. On the one hand, the regulations ban refrigerants over a certain GWP level, and on the other they aim to steadily reduce the amount of HFCs allowed into the EU market.
When it put this mechanism in place, the European Commission hoped it would enable the cooling industries of Europe to readily embrace their destiny, to see the bans looming like an iceberg in the middle distance and thus to steer in timely fashion to the brave new world of lower-GWP refrigerants.
Instead — in the U.K. at least — the end-user community seems to have done its usual trick of ignoring anything too far in the future, and in fact ignoring a number of warnings that there was a problem on the horizon. At our recent F-Gas Question Time, consultant Ray Gluckman reminded the audience that it was as far back as 2011 that he had first written an article called, "Is it Time to Stop Using R404A?"
Unfortunately, it seems, few end-users have heeded the warnings. Now we are in 2017, and that iceberg is looming very large.
The higher-GWP refrigerants are set to be banned in supermarket-type systems in just over two years' time — from 2020, end-users won't even be able to top up leaking equipment with R404A, unless it is in a reclaimed version. But that's not the half of it, because the way the quota reductions have been calculated, the stocks of the higher GWP refrigerants — which in Europe means R404A and R507 initially — are going to reduce rapidly from 2018, with a 44 percent cut in volume in real terms.
As I wrote back in April, two of the biggest refrigerant manufacturers had grown frustrated with the apathy among end-users and had taken matters into their own hands. Honeywell announced it would stop selling R404 and R507 into the EU next year, while Chemours took the economic route, announcing sequential price rises, to the point where R404A would now generally be at parity with the HFOs designed to replace it.
Coming a couple of months after the announcements, our F-Gas Question Time very much had the theme of "Don't do nothing. Do something." The consensus was that more communication needs to take place in the refrigeration supply chain to alert their customers to the new realities.
Speaker after speaker at the event stressed that while the larger supermarkets had made plans to move away from R404A — in fact, the largest, Tesco, just announced a 1,200-store, three-year program of conversions, which gives an indication of the scale of the task — there are large numbers of customers in other sectors, such as convenience stores and industrial refrigeration, who remain ignorant of the necessity to change.
Gluckman put it in forthright terms: "Someone has to warn end users to get their R404A out of the system. ... I really worry that we have still not get the message through to contractors and end-users that the end is nigh."
At the same time, Gluckman warned of double jeopardy — that the slow move away from R404A has left a much smaller bank of reclaimed refrigerant than had been forecast. Thus, companies should not depend on using reclaimed stocks to service their estates after 2020, because there might not be enough of it.
For the refrigerant manufacturers, there was a tone that now it was time to talk turkey. Chemours European marketing manager Janet Ludert appealed for action.
"We have to proactive and not reactive when it comes to moving to lower GWP refrigerants, or we may find ourselves falling off a cliff," Ludert said.
She also pointed out a significant consequence of the fact that the quota system is based on a refrigerant's CO2 equivalent. Refrigerant manufacturers can import three containers of HFOs for every container of R404A, based on CO2e, so it is clear where the economic driver will come from.
In order to tackle the apathy — which was either born of the economic uncertainty of Brexit, or of some sort of "refrigerant conversion fatigue" — all agreed it was important to get the message out beyond the bigger companies to the so-called "white van man." This, unfortunately, underlines another institutional problem with the U.K. refrigeration industry — it is fragmented, and thus a whole swath of end users in independent grocers and individual industrial sites do not come into contact with the best practices.
There was talk about making messages more simple and direct to the customer that conversion has to take place sooner rather than later — with the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that R404A canisters should start sporting a "Use By 2020" label.
"We have been warning about demand outstripping supply [on higher GWP refrigerants], and we are very nearly there," Mark Hughes of Chemours said.
Ludert warned that if everyone left their low-GWP conversions to the last minute, it would create what she called a "retrofit wave" of more activity than the industry's personnel could handle
"We can't fit all the retrofits in to one year in 2018. There won't be the technicians or the equipment to meet the demand," she said. "Depending on how the industry manages it, it could be a trickle or it could be a tsunami."
The business of preventing that flood is going to exercise the European cooling industry in the coming months. I will be sure to report on progress.
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