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Time to Set Smarter Industry Standards for HFC-free Technologies

This is the third installment of the EIA Climate Campaign’s blog series on ‘Navigating the Path to Climate-Friendly Cooling.’ The series will focus on the key policy and technology issues related to mitigating hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—super greenhouse gases used in refrigeration and air conditioning. We’ll be covering a number of topics, including the progress on state and federal regulations in the United States and the interplay between industry standards and emerging technologies, in the context of the approaching international negotiations on an HFC phase down at the Montreal Protocol. For the other posts in this series, click here and here.

By Christina Starr, EIA Climate Policy Analyst

As you may know from the previous posts in this series, most refrigerants we use today are synthetic super-greenhouse gases called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), that are hundreds to thousands of times as damaging to the climate as carbon dioxide (CO2). A movement is underway to rid the world of HFCs and replace them with low-global warming potential (GWP) alternatives. Countries have agreed to negotiate a global HFC phase down agreement this year that could prevent 100 Gt CO2-equivalent HFC emissions by 2050 with up to an additional 100 Gt CO2 emissions through potential energy efficiency improvements. Meanwhile, in the United States, President Obama has made HFCs a key element of his climate agenda, and other regions including the European Union, have already begun the process of phasing down HFCs through their own laws.

Standards and standards-making bodies are a critical link in the chain to make proven low-GWP alternatives available for public consumption. Standards are supposed to ensure that the products we buy are safe and do not pose an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. Yet many current standards governing low-GWP alternatives are outdated and are acting more as false barriers rather than constructive linkages to an HFC-free world.

These standards, developed by industry, not the governments, set the rules for practically every safety and quality aspect of designing, testing, and installing any product sold. This includes what kind and how much refrigerant can go in your air conditioner, fridge, supermarket, or any other type of equipment using a refrigerant. If an industry standard imposes too restrictive measures to ensure a new product is safe, the product is effectively prohibited from entering the market. Particularly in the case of natural low-GWP alternative refrigerants such as hydrocarbons, CO2, and ammonia, many standards are currently based on outdated assumptions and old technologies that are preventing their broader uptake.

To give just one example of a market barrier imposed by standards, the most widely recognized international standards body, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), allows up to 150 grams of hydrocarbons in a domestic refrigerator and as a result, over 700 million hydrocarbon refrigerators have been sold safely around the world over the last two decades. Here in the United States, however, the market follows a domestic standard written by Underwriters Laboratories, called UL 250, which limits the amount of hydrocarbon refrigerant in a household refrigerator to just 57 grams, or one third of the amount allowed in the EU and most of the rest of the world. It is simply not feasible or cost-effective to make an energy efficient refrigerator with enough cooling capacity to cool your food using only 57 grams of hydrocarbon refrigerant. As a result, virtually none of the approximately 10 million new refrigerators purchased in the United States each year use hydrocarbons.

There are many similar examples with other types of low-GWP HFC-free equipment and other standards. Part of the problem lies in the research and technical know-how needed to change the standards to take into account new technologies that are proven safe. However, another significant challenge lies in the reality that many of the committees and panels that draft and vote on these standards are made up largely of representatives of the industries that manufacture and sell HFCs and the products that use them. Without a nudge in the right direction, these industry representatives have substantial incentive not to catalyze changes to the standards that would allow other alternatives to compete with synthetic HFCs and HFC-blends. In fact, they have a vested interest in making the process of updating these standards move as slowly as possible.

Low-GWP, HFC-free alternatives have been developed and proven for almost every refrigeration and air conditioning application where HFCs are used. We need smarter, more modern standards that will help illuminate the path toward the HFC-free world that is within our grasp, and we need them as soon as possible.

Stakeholders from around the world with a united interest in seeing broader uptake of low-GWP alternatives are beginning to step up to the plate to take this on, but much work remains. EIA welcomes this trend and looks forward to seeing progress and increased participation from this broader range of stakeholders to modernize all standards that are artificially keeping climate friendly refrigeration and air conditioning equipment from being sold as soon as possible.

We will continue to bring you information on this topic of smarter standards for an energy efficient, HFC-free world.

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