Experts at our annual supply chain debate were of a consensus that end users have to plan now to exit higher-GWP gases, reports Ian Vallely.
The prospects for higher GWP refrigerants in the light of the F-Gas regulations’ mixture of forthcoming bans and steadily reducing quotas were very much what was exercising delegates at RAC’s latest F-Gas Question Time.
The F-Gas regulation aims to reduce the contribution of the higher-GWP gases by means of this dual pressure, but, as has been detailed in RAC in recent months, the industry has been slow to respond in its conversion to lower-GWP options. In this context, the role of the expert speakers at this year’s event seemed very much making clear the urgency of the situation.
Widely respected consultant Ray Gluckman explained the implications at the well-attended event: “Suddenly the market has to worry about how they import pre-charged equipment which previously was uncontrolled. It is even possible equipment will be held at the Customs because of authorisations and declarations of conformity and other administrative requirements.
Throughout the last 12 months, numerous new low GWP refrigerants have been introduced. However, we will hit a brick wall on quotas soon, starting with a big cut next year, said Mr Gluckman. “In terms of the EU phase down steps, we only had a 7 per cent cut in 2016 and, perhaps because the cut was small and there was a lot of stockpiling at the tail end of 2014, prices remained low. But in the first quarter of this year we have seen significant price rises and at the end of the first quarter of this year we had an interesting stirring up the market – the announcement from Honeywell that, from their perspective, the future of R404A [an HFC refrigerant blend currently widely used in low and medium temperature refrigeration applications] is not very long.”
But he warned: “I really worry that we haven’t got the message out to contractors and end users that the end is nigh…
Given the slow progress so far on high-GWP refrigerant conversion, the question is: can it be achieved by the deadline?
For Mr Gluckman, it’s a tough challenge: “I’ve been working with EPEE, the European trade Association of the refrigeration and air conditioning industry. Through our project called the ‘Gapometer’, we have been looking at how industry might achieve the phase down and then monitoring the market. This has given us a roadmap that shows a theoretical model of how we do it and we are doing market research to find the gaps between requirements and actions.”
Mr Gluckman said there was good progress in some sectors, such as the new equipment market: “A recent survey of the big supermarkets would seem to indicate that none of them are using R404A in any larger pack-type systems that are brand-new. Of course, the whole of their existing infrastructure still relies on R404A, but as far as new stores are concerned there is a lot of movement towards CO2, some supermarkets are using hydrocarbon integrals and others are looking at a midpoint position using what I would call a ‘moderate GWP alternative’ such as the non-flammable HFO blends R448A or R449A.”
He also noted that the small split air conditioning market was on the verge of a big move away from R410A for new equipment, probably to R32 and R32 blends. “Larger split air conditioning is more problematic because of the flammability issue, so there is still R410A for the foreseeable future for that sort of kit.”
However he noted that beyond that, progress away towards lower-GWP refrigerants ‘is not good, right across the board.
The “fragmented and quite conservative” industrial sector, too, was slow off the mark: “[Industrial] companies haven’t got the drivers that supermarkets have including central expertise within their organisations. I see progress as slow in industrial, particularly given that they can move to a whole variety of low GWP fluids like ammonia and CO2.”
But the issue that concerns Mr Gluckman most currently is the assumptions he and his colleagues made in the roadmap modelling about the rate of retrofits in supermarkets, because it looks far too optimistic now: “We assumed that, once the F-Gas regulation was announced, people would be logical in their approach and take a reasonably long-term view. Our model assumes that, in 2016, quite a chunk of retrofit would have taken place followed by another big chunk in 2017 so, by 2020 when we hit the service ban, a significant proportion of the R404A bank would have been retrofitted.”
“The problem is that nothing much happened in 2016 because prices were low. I’m sensing acceleration certainly in the UK now, but I worry about Germany, France, and so on, who are not reacting to this opportunity as quickly.”
The lethargy was, he said, the same with reclaimed refrigerant. “There are geographic regions of the EU that don’t seem to have woken up to the fact that they need a reclaim infrastructure. The UK is well-placed and one or two other regions, France, in particular, have got a history of reclaim, but lots of other countries don’t.”
This overview was backed up from a refrigerant supplier’s perspective by Janet Ludert, regional marketing manager of Chemours, in her talk entitled Dispatches from the Cliff’s Edge: “Every three years, starting in 2018, there is going to be a step down in the [HFC supply] quota. The cliff – a big drop coming in the 2018 quota– is just seven months away.”
She was forthright about what this might mean for suppliers: “In theory, it looks like R404A is still available and prices, until this year maybe, have been bearable, but are we living with a false sense of security? Do we think we are on solid ground when, in fact, the cliff is right ahead?
“This is something that we as a whole industry have to be concerned about, because we need to be more proactive not reactive. We need to start seeing more transition to low-GWP products and technology, or else we might end up falling off the cliff.”
Suppliers’ portfolios are headed towards their lower-GWP HFO blends as they manage their quotas which being based on CO2 equivalent, are effectively GWP-weighted.
The result, said Ms Ludert is inevitably a supply reduction of the higher-GWP versions: “What we call legacy products like R404A and R407C may become harder to find in the coming years because we have to manage our quota. For every one container of R404A we can sell three containers of XP40 [R449A] to help the market transition. So, of course, we are going to start managing our quota to be able to ensure that we have enough to service the market needs.”
The panel debate that followed was lively and thought-provoking. Graeme Fox, senior mechanical engineer at BESA, pointed out that regulators were aware that the message had to be got across to contractors: “I was talking to the regional manager of one of the wholesalers a couple of days ago and he said he still getting contractors coming to him and asking for R404A equipment which I find astonishing.
“Given this, does the panel think there is a need for wholesalers to get the message across [that it is not unacceptable still to be specifying and selling R404A equipment]?”
Mr Gluckman said it made sense to use every route possible to reach contractors and end users. “At the fragmented end of the market people are still trying to buy brand-new R404A equipment. I don’t think the supermarkets are making that mistake on the whole.”
Ms Ludert added: “As the suppliers make their moves related to the quota, product [supply] and pricing, there is a lag before the impact is felt at the end of the supply chain. So, as we’ve seen, there have been announcements by suppliers that are more drastic in nature, either price rises or rationalisation of portfolios and not being able to offer certain products. That is because of the lag. So to stick with the tsunami example, the earthquake hits, but you don’t get the wave until later.”
“As the phase down progresses, by design it is going to start by attacking high-GWP products. As those clear out of the value chain, then the next highest GWP products will be impacted. So for now, R404A is in the bull’s-eye because of its high GWP of almost 4000, but as that clears out over the next few years, the next highest GWP products are going to be impacted, like R410A and as we go into 2018, all the other [higher-GWP] products will also feel the squeeze.” She told the audience in as clear as way as possible: “It’s not going to be possible to maintain the status quo under the next reduction in quota.”
The next tranche of lower-GWP refrigerants by nature will be mildly flammable but Mr Gluckman said he believed that, within three or four years, the industry will feel comfortable and safe using them: He noted that he had just seen a demonstration that made it clear that ‘mildly flammable’ was very different to ‘flammable’ hydrocarbons. “It’s very, very difficult to burn R32. It can be ignited with a bare flame, but as soon as the flame is taken away it just goes out. The flame doesn’t propagate in a way that it would with propane or butane.”
Martyn Cooper, commercial manager of the Federation of Environmental Trade Associations (FETA), added from the floor: “With the help of a number of member companies, we have pulled together an introduction to A2L refrigerants, which describes what they are, why they are, and some of the applications including a couple of worked examples of the use of EN378 in terms of calculating a charge size for a particular room. That is available for free from the FETA website.
“We have also formed a FETA working group on A2L refrigerants to try and co-ordinate issues. We are trying to interact with the Health and Safety Executive – who don’t really understand what mildly flammable refrigerants are yet – and I know [industry umbrella body] ACRIB is also doing some work on that which we are trying to co-ordinate.”
According to Paul Huggins, programme director of the Carbon Trust, 80 per cent of the market is still using R404A which represents a significant challenge to drive change. He added: “Everyone talks about quotas, but to the average buyer ‘quotas’ mean nothing… There needs to be a path of product withdrawal, which is clearly articulated because, if they’re not into economic market analysis, people won’t get this idea of what a quota really means.”