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EU Recovery Plan, Green Deal, Natural Refrigerants: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the HVAC industry (part 2)

Last updated: 02-23-2021

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EU Recovery Plan, Green Deal, Natural Refrigerants: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the HVAC industry (part 2)

In the previous article, we discussed the economic and environmental conditions that are enabling a more sustainable HVAC industry in view of the EU target for climate neutrality in 2050. 

Here we will examine how this will happen, and is already happening, also through the massive market adoption of solutions based on low GWP refrigerants or even near-to-zero GWP natural refrigerants.

From a legislative point of view, the F-gas Regulation review is expected in 2022, and the EIA (Energy International Agency) is urging the inclusion of a ban on HFCs in split-system air conditioners and promoting propane (R-290) as a viable alternative. The EIA estimates that in Europe, moving away from HFCs in split air-con from 2025 could result in cumulative savings of 62 million tonnes of CO equivalent by 2050, that is, the same amount as the annual emissions from over 500,000 cars.

We shouldn’t forget that EU F-Gas Regulation already bans the use of HFCs with GWP >150 in portable ACs as of 2020 (about 200,000 units/year) and in all “Mobile Air Conditioners” in new cars and vans manufactured from 2017 (Directive 2006/40/EC)

In commercial HVAC there are no specific bans yet, but industry is seeing the introduction of units with lower GWP gases compared to the previous standard R-410A (GWP = 2088, no flammability): mainly R-32 (GWP = 677, A2L flammability according to ASHRAE Standard 34, no pin-to-pin replacement with R-410A), but also R-452B/R-454B (GWP = 698/466, A2L flammability, pin-to-pin replacement with R-410A) and other even lower GWP HFC blends. The amount of R-1234yf contained in some of these blends puts them outside of a green vision, as it breaks down in the atmosphere creating high levels of trifluoroacetic acid (TFA), which can be very harmful to human health and the environment. In fact, TFA is considered a persistent toxic pollutant, as it accumulates in the hydrosphere and affects germination and plant growth.

To leave behind this situation of uncertainty and transitory solutions, the development and release of solutions based on natural refrigerants propane (R-290) and CO2 (R-744) that have near-to-zero GWP has seen a strong increase in Europe in the last year, in residential, commercial and industrial HVAC. I expect there to be a significant acceleration.

In residential HVAC there are already units available on the shelf and that are using either propane or CO. Propane is mainly used in outdoor units for space cooling & heating, there are now several manufacturers in Europe (mainly based in Germany, Poland, Italy, Nordics, UK but also other EU countries) that are finalising or launching their products through their distribution channels. Of course, they had to learn how to manage the flammability of this A3 gas, also supported by expert suppliers capable to providing components, solutions and above all know-how. From heat exchangers to compressors, valves and so on, most of the components inside the unit have to be reconsidered. The result is that effective solutions have been identified and made applicable for the typical mass production of HP manufacturers involving thousands of units per year.  That is true also for CO2 technology, which is more suitable for domestic hot water HP, and has already been proven to work well in Japan (EcoCute HP) but needs adaptations to perform well in Europe. The technology is not trivial, as it requires higher working pressures than HFCs and several refrigerant circuit layouts are being examined. The challenge there is also to invest in setting up the service and maintenance networks for CO heat pumps. As for propane, for CO2 too know-how is the “service” that HVAC manufacturers most request from suppliers, and those that have been operating in the refrigeration industry, where CO2 has been adopted for several years, are successfully using their strategic advantage.

In industrial HVAC, we have several manufacturers across Europe (mainly Italy and Germany) selling chillers that use natural refrigerants, especially CO2. New technologies (ejector, gas cooler, overfeeding evaporators, etc.) are making CO2 chillers at least as efficient as HFC/HFO chillers also in warm climates (T ambient > 20°C). Complexity and cost of transcritical refrigerant circuits are limiting wider adoption, but the increase in the number of units manufactured is going to squeeze costs and make them affordable. Several manufacturers are also prototyping small CO2 chillers targeting profitable industrial niches such as laboratories and pharmaceutical plants, which are definitely more willing to absorb higher unit prices. We should not forget the many CO2 units partially released and partially under development for MACs in both trains and new electric buses. In the latter case, the vehicle’s MAC units also need to provide heating, as there is no internal combustion engine, thus the vehicles are equipped with cooling and heating units (in other words a CO HP). We are already there!

In commercial HVAC, together with the new units proposed with R-32 and R-452B/R-454B, we are already seeing in Europe some examples of commercial chillers, HPs and rooftops using propane. The main limitation until now, together with the safety concerns about the amount of A3-flammable propane needed, has been the partial availability of components suitable for this gas, as components were initially designed for smaller units. Industry is moving quickly and is almost ready to flood market with properly-sized components, so it is no secret that with current limited numbers the cost of production of a propane rooftop is currently just 10% higher than a standard R-407C with the same efficiency. It is easy to imagine how easily the two costs will be aligned as soon as supply chain starts mass production.

In these two articles, we have seen a couple of key examples of how the HVAC industry can contribute to the EU’s 2050 neutrality target by working on the electrification of heating and cooling and by fostering deployment of solutions based on natural refrigerants with low or even near-to-zero GWP.

Overall, it seems that all European stakeholders are definitely accelerating to make it happen:

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the HVAC industry and this is really happening now.  

EU Recovery Plan, Green Deal, Natural Refrigerants: a once in a lifetime opportunity for the HVAC industry (part 1)


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