Europe is currently in the throes of dealing with the impact of the F-Gas regulation. The phasedown of HFCs is now starting to gather pace, and as a 37 percent drop in quota looms next year, the price of the higher-GWP refrigerants such as R404A is going through the roof as supply-and-demand principles kick in.

I have written before about the predicted problems that the lack of conversion to lower-GWP alternatives will bring, in terms of refrigerant cost and availability, and the potential for a shortage of skilled engineers next year as end users rush towards last-minute conversions. If the quota cut doesn't focus the mind, the fact that there is a ban on servicing supermarket-scale refrigeration systems rushing toward us in 2020 certainly will.

But amidst all the excitement about the acute issues that F-Gas is creating, we should not lose sight of the fact that the legislation is designed to bring about a paradigm shift in the type of refrigerant used — and so longer-term measures will be required as well, to ensure the RAC industry is fit for the future.

The move to the lowest-GWP refrigerants will either mean the adoption of the A2L class "mildly flammable" refrigerants such as HFO blends and R32, or it will mean moves toward use of natural refrigerants such as CO2 and hydrocarbons. Whatever the wishes of the various interest groups, it will most likely be a combination of both.

But both of these alternatives will require technology and handling techniques that are distinct from those that many European engineers grew up with. In some cases, it is a question of learning to work with the increased risk requirements of mild flammability, while for naturals it will require new handling techniques entirely.

Many of those who work with the European cooling industry consider the skills and training implications of F-Gas to be the major threat to the successful implementation of the legislation and the parallel phasedown.

Dr. Arno Kaschl, policy analyst at the European Commission, recently told the UN's European refrigeration technology conference that the phasedown process is currently working well in Europe, but he emphasized the importance of training in ensuring its sustainability.

"It's crucial," Kaschl said. "Because we will have to use a lot of new alternatives where technicians have not been working with them so frequently in the past. These alternatives have some properties that other alternatives do not have, so it is very important that they be properly trained ... in order to ensure a smooth transition to new alternatives under the EU phasedown framework."

This of course is exactly the same consideration the U.S. industry needs to address when I am remaining optimistic that President Donald Trump will not make it an if the global phasedown schedule, agreed at Kigali, comes into play. Those of us who have an interest in cleaner refrigeration technology will be hoping that the current talks in Bangkok will confirm a clear phasedown timescale.

It is with this in mind, therefore, that we should applaud the work being done by European cooling associations in creating an infrastructure for training in alternatives.

REAL Alternatives for LIFE is a pan-European consortium financed by the EU's environment and climate action fund, which is developing training materials and techniques. Its initial focus is to provide "train the trainer" sessions on low-GWP refrigerants in order to ensure "safe, efficient, reliable and cost-effective implementation."

REAL Alternatives for LIFE, launched with a meeting at the UK's Institute of Refrigeration last month, is a development of REAL Alternatives, another pan-European initiative that brought the world of e-learning to the refrigeration industry. The original program developed a multilingual training platform for refrigerant engineers, with a common training standard translated into national e-learning courses in local languages.

The fundamental success of the initiative was to develop a true "European standard" for refrigerant training. But at the same time, REAL Alternatives created the industry's first real platform combining e-learning and face-to-face training aka "blended learning" no mean feat in a notoriously conservative industry.

The new development REAL Alternatives for LIFE, seeks to evolve the platform and apply it specifically to the requirements of skills in handling low-GWP refrigerants. But now the ambition is to reach not just the industry in Europe but across the world.

The project management team bears out the international standing of the initiative:

  • the IOR and London South Bank University in the U.K.
  • University College Limburg in Belgium
  • IKKE Regional Training Centre in Germany
  • the ATF trade association in Italy
  • the PROZON nonprofit refrigerant reclamation organisation in Poland
  • the international AREA contractors' body and the International Institute of Refrigeration

Along with developing the training materials, the aim is to introduce a range of practical exercises and assessments with the goal of "standardizing skills sets and requirements for handling low GWP refrigerants across the globe." The project will promote the best practice in training in this field while equally increasing awareness, experience and knowledge at all levels, the stakeholders say.

The widened scope of the new project is underlined by the fact that courses will be conducted in 13 languages, with 15 countries represented. And given this international scope, the partners are looking both inside and outside Europe for further stakeholders.

As the global industry works towards HFC phasedown, these sorts of projects will become ever more vital to developing and sustaining the industry's skill base into the future.

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