An Inadequate Reaction
“It’s still mainly business as usual,” says Daniel de Graaf, Scientific Assistant at the German Environment Agency, who believes that the air conditioning and refrigeration sector’s adoption of low-GWP refrigerants in the country remains inadequate. This, he says, is the case despite stakeholders encountering problems with procuring refrigerants owing to the European F-Gas Regulation (Regulation (EU) No 517/2014), citing recent reports of refrigerant theft to highlight the sense of desperation in the market. “We had a wake-up call, last year, when refrigerant prices went through the ceiling,” he says. “In January 2017, in Germany, you paid EUR 100 for 12.6 kg cylinder of R 134a. Now it’s EUR 600 or even more.” Regarding R-404A, which is the standard refrigerant for commercial uses, such as supermarket refrigeration, de Graaf says, the price hike was even more dramatic at approximately 1,000% in one year and a half.
De Graaf says that due to the CO2 equivalent based HFC phase down approach of the F-Gas Regulation, there is lack of clarity about the question, ‘Which refrigerant is future-proof for the European market and which is not?’ This becomes more obvious with prohibitions, which have been put down for some applications in Annex III of the F-gas Regulation, for example, for household or air conditioning appliances. “With portable air conditioners,” he explains, “you’re only allowed to sell appliances that use refrigerants with a GWP of 150 or less, from 2020 on. In this segment, you have a complete halt for HFCs, with prohibition of mini-splits containing refrigerants with a GWP of more than 750 from 2025.” But even more important, de Graaf stresses, is the prohibition to the placing on the market of stationary refrigeration plants using refrigerants with a GWP of more than 2,500, such as R-404A, starting from 2020.
While the F-Gas Regulation provides a framework to restrict the amount of HFC, de Graaf says it is up to the market to find the most economical solution. “The problem is people do not want to adopt accordingly, because sometimes it just blows away their business case,” he says. “If you sell chillers with HFCs and made a lot of money and you are told you have to use something else — propane or ammonia, for instance — that’s not what you had as a business case. This is especially true if you don’t only sell the chillers but also the HFC refrigerant for the chillers. Natural refrigerants are definitely no business case for HFC or HFO manufacturers.” Rolf Werner, Director, Application Engineering, Wieland, adds that for manufacturers, there is a lack of clarity on the type of refrigerant that will take the lead in the market. “We can see CO2 applications on the rise for supermarkets and buildings,” he says. “That’s clear, but for all of the other refrigerants, it’s quite unclear and uncertain.” Maciej Danielak, Export Sales Director, Kampann, weighs in, saying that the increasing prices of refrigerant have paved the way for water-based systems, which has seen an uptake, adding that the companies dealing with refrigerants are looking to complement and expand their portfolio.
Dr. Karin Jahn, Technical Manager, Sector department, Refrigeration and Heat Pump Technology, VDMA, believes that the current environmental policy framework in Germany is boosting the demand for climate-friendly solutions in the refrigeration sector, stressing that the European F-Gases Regulation and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol have triggered a lively discussion in the market about the use of various refrigerants, with renewed interest in natural alternatives.
De Graaf stresses that that there is further scope for natural refrigerants to be used, saying that manufacturers and end-users are settling for interim solutions that are unable to cope with looming targets. “R-32 is becoming more and more prominent in the market, when it comes to room air conditioners,” he says, “but R-32 still has a high GWP of 675. We need to get down to an average GWP of roughly 400 by 2030 — that’s still quite a gap to close. R-32 is not a final solution, but it’s what is marketed a lot right now in Germany and throughout Europe.”
Bottlenecks in the adoption of natural refrigerants, de Graaf says, can also be partially attributed to lack of training. Dr Jahn adds that many installers and workers are interested in converting existing refrigeration systems and ensuring the viability of future systems to be installed; however, the planning, installation and operation of systems with flammable refrigerants demands special legal expertise and safety-engineering know-how.
De Graaf believes craftsmen and technicians are the stakeholders that should be addressed, as they are the ones reluctant to move away from standard HVAC refrigerants and deal with flammable or toxic alternatives, with many apprehensive towards even R-32 appliances.
Dr Jahn remains optimistic, however, saying that the fundamentally high standard of training systems in Germany puts the industry in a very good position. “In principle, the training programmes in Germany are so broad that the graduates are familiar with all established refrigerant alternatives,” she says, “whether natural refrigerants, synthetic refrigerants or blends, and are able to pursue respective developments in refrigeration and air-conditioning companies.” Even so, Dr Jahn says that there remains a high demand for special seminars and courses to keep them up to date with the latest legislation and engineering developments.
De Graaf adds that, of late, there are a number of incentives, namely support programmes where end users can get money from the German government when opting for equipment with natural refrigerants. He also believes that investment into the development of new solutions with natural refrigerants makes economic sense for manufacturers, since they are F-Gas Regulation-proof also in the long run and outperform HFC as well as HFO equipment energetically. The latter is also important for end users, who accept higher initial investment costs when, due to lower energy costs, life cycle costs are equal or lower compared to HFC equipment.
Even with existing innovations, however, de Graaf expresses his concern at manufacturers’ reluctance towards introducing products to the market, citing instances wherein a manufacturer that received the German Blue Angel ecolabel certification for his product in March 2018, still refrained from introducing it to the market. “There are some other manufacturers, as well, for single split appliances with R-290 that still refrain from bringing them to the market because of the safety issue,” he says, “but they may be a little bit too cautious in this respect. In India, one such manufacturer sold 600,000 units, which are installed with no incident because technicians had proper training.” As such, de Graaf issues a plea to manufacturers that have solutions in their portfolio, “Please be a little braver in bringing your energy-efficient and climate- friendly solutions to the German and European market.”