Federal, State Programs Open Opportunity for Natural Refrigerants

Interest in natural refrigerants is continuing to increase, and several federal and state projects, led in particular by California legislation and agencies, are investing significant amounts of money into research and development programs designed to advance technology that could increase natural refrigerant use.


At the federal level, the Department of Energy has a multi-pronged strategy to develop, demonstrate, and deploy low-to-zero GWP heating, ventilation, air conditioning, water heating and refrigeration technologies. Part of the DOE’s work has been to evaluate the performance of low-GWP refrigerants, and the agency recently released the results of a testing program evaluating the performance of HFC alternatives in rooftop air conditioning units in hot or very hot temperatures.

“We’re agnostic to the refrigerants. It just happens that there has been a good intersect between research and natural refrigerants that we’ve done in the past and will continue to do,” said Antonio Bouza, HVAC, Water Heating, and Appliance Technology Manager in the Building Technologies Office, which is part of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,

Natural refrigerants have been an important part of the BTO’s portfolio. “CO2 has received some funds from us historically and we’ll probably be continuing that in the future. Ammonia has been very successful with natural gas being used for fuel-fired applications. With the electrical chemical compression work, using a very small amount of hydrogen for electro-chemical compression is up and coming,” Bouza said.

“BTO is currently pursuing some work with ammonia at Oakridge National Lab for water heating and also funded a project with Stone Mountain.” [Stone Mountain Technologies is a Johnson City, Tennessee, developer of heating technologies.]

Bouza said the department is open to working with private industry. “We have a history of working with big corporations but also working with the next generation of small businesses,” Bouza said. “We’re open to working with small companies and large corporations.”

Operators can get on the agency’s mailing list to get notice of opportunities, Bouza said. There is a sign-up option at: www.energy.gov/eere/buildings/ building-technologies-office, and BTO also provides funding information on the website. DOE posts funding opportunities online at: www.energy.gov/eere/ funding/eere-funding-opportunities.

Once an applicant submits a proposal, BTO uses external reviewers that are subject-matter experts to evaluate and score the proposals. The annual Building Technologies Peer Review Report, which is available at: www.energy.gov/ eere/buildings/building-technologies-office-peer-review, outlines the formal process through which BTO research projects are reviewed by external experts. “Depending on their scoring, we make awards and measure their progress over time. Sometimes this can span multiple funding actions,” Bouza said.

To help keep those within the industry informed, BTO publishes technical reports related to commercial appliances and refrigeration in general. “It gives a lens to look at what is coming down the road,” Bouza said.


Working with other agencies can help advance technologies, and DOE is working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and others such as the Air Conditioning, Heating, & Refrigeration Institute to create the knowledge base necessary for the International Code Council’s International Mechanical Code and International Residential Code to be modified to accept these low-GWP refrigerants, DOE said.

That work will be a combination of laboratory work and field testing to provide data that will be used to help ensure that the ICC model codes are prescribing what is safe, and manufacturers can build compliant equipment.


California has been an early leader in its work to improve air quality. At the state level, the California Energy Commission is currently involved in several research projects to get more information on the performance and feasibility of different types of low global warming potential (GWP) refrigerants, said Virginia Lew, energy efficiency research manager for the California Energy Commission.

“A research plan published earlier this year identified the potential for additional research in testing and evaluating alternative refrigerants, such as propane, CO2 and others for both small and large refrigeration units in commercial/industrial applications in various climate zones,” Lew said.

A project that just launched is the Food Production Investment Program, which provides grants to food processing facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at their plants, Lew said. “The grants are awarded competitively and projects that use alternative refrigerants with low global warming potential in refrigeration systems are eligible,” she explained, adding that all funding opportunities are listed at: www.energy.ca.gov/ research/funding_opportunities.html.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) has also invested in a commercial refrigeration facility located at the Port of Long Beach. “Shipped cargo of frozen fish, turkeys, refrigerated avocados, citrus, berries and a host of other foods are stored in the chilled storage rooms, before being loaded onto trucks for distribution centers,” Lew said.

“To keep the rooms cooled, the facility uses a low-charge distributed ammonia refrigeration system. The chilling system is distinctive because it replaces environmentally harmful refrigerant with a fairly neutral one, ammonia, and because it uses lower quantities of the refrigerant than a typical facility of its size.”

Each chilled room has its own refrigeration unit so there’s no central chiller that all the refrigerant goes to. “It’s akin to having room air conditioners instead of central AC. The Energy Commission’s funding is focused on developing and testing controls that can reduce electrical demand as needed, so the warehouse can participate in demand response programs and reduce energy costs while also providing electric grid flexibility,” Lew said.

Each year, the CEC invests about $125 million through its Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program for research projects that advance pre-commercial clean-energy technologies and approaches, Lew said. For example, EPIC funded research grants for the Electric Power Research Institute to develop climate appropriate HVAC systems to reduce energy use and demand, including testing the performance and energy efficiency of a variety of low GWP refrigerants, such as ammonia, propane and CO2 and to develop and test an energy efficient ultra-low charge ammonia refrigeration system.

Lew suggested those within the industry can help the CEC by taking part in public workshops the agency holds, such as the HVAC workshop it held in December. Those interested in funding opportunities sign up on the CEC’s “Opportunity” and “R&D” listservs. She added that it may also be helpful to sign up for California Air Resources Board listservs, such as the Refrigerant Management Program at: https://ww2. arb.ca.gov/our-work/programs/refrigerant-management-program.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) is also working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California from all sources, including high-global warming potential refrigerants. Legislation such as California’s Global Warming Solutions Act mandated California to reduce emissions, and SB 1383 specifically requires 40 percent reductions in HFC emissions below 2013 levels by 2030, said David Clegern, a spokesperson for CARB.

What’s more, the California ShortLived Climate Pollutant (SLCP) Strategy of March 2017 recommended mitigation measures or regulations to prohibit the use of high-GWP refrigerants in new stationary refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment. “CARB is technology neutral and does not specifically promote the adoption of natural refrigerants, but rather promotes the adoption of low-GWP refrigerants, which can include synthetic refrigerants such as hydrofluoro-olefins,” Clegern said. “Of course, all of the common natural refrigerants—ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrocarbons—are low-GWP, and as such, would be part of the solution to reducing GHG emissions from refrigeration and air-conditioning.”

As of August 2018, SB 1013, the California legislature was considering the California Cooling Act. “The bill would require the same high-GWP HFC prohibitions in new refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment that were previously required under the U.S. EPA’s Signicant New Alternatives Policy (SNAP) program Rules 20 and 21,” Clegern said. “The SNAP rules were partially vacated by a District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals decision in August 2017 and the highGWP HFC prohibitions are no longer in effect,” Clegern said. He added that many equipment manufacturers will begin manufacturing equipment using HFOs or natural refrigerants in order to comply with the high-GWP refrigerant bans, should SB 1013 go into effect.

In addition to high-GWP refrigerant prohibitions, SB 1013 also includes provisions for funding an incentives program in California that would enable retail food operators and other businesses to receive some form of financial incentive to use low-GWP refrigerants when purchasing new equipment and replacing old equipment. “We anticipate that many of the new refrigeration systems will use natural refrigerants. Several retailers already use natural refrigerant refrigeration in a significant number of their stores, including Aldi, Target, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods,” Clegern said.

CARB expects to announce refrigerant regulations as first described in the SLCP Strategy: New refrigeration systems would be prohibited from using refrigerants with a GWP of 150 or greater, at a date to be determined; and new stationary air-conditioning systems would be prohibited from using refrigerants with a GWP of 750 or greater, also at a future date. The effective date of the high-GWP refrigerant prohibitions would be determined through the public rule-making process with active input and feedback from all stakeholders, Clegern said.

“A misunderstanding among some operators about proposed California refrigerant regulations is that high-GWP refrigerant restrictions apply to existing equipment. This is not accurate. High-GWP restrictions modeled after the U.S. EPA SNAP Program apply to new equipment.”

–David Clegern, spokesperson for CARB

CARB funded a recently completed research project on the energy efficiency of low-GWP refrigeration systems, which included the efficiency of natural refrigerants including carbon dioxide and ammonia. The results show that natural refrigerants are as energy efficient as HFC refrigerants in almost all of the 16 climate zones in California. Although very high ambient temperatures are challenging for energy-efficient transcritical CO2 systems, modifications such as adiabatic cooling bring the energy efficiency of CO2 systems into parity with HFC systems.

CARB is also planning to fund an inventory study for refrigeration systems using less than 50 pounds of refrigerant. “We’d like to inventory the GHG emissions more accurately from these systems, which are used by most small grocery markets and convenience stores. The numbers and emissions impact from these smaller commercial refrigeration units may be underestimated,” Clegern said.


There are several barriers that are preventing the widespread adoption of natural refrigerants, such as higher upfront cost of natural refrigerant systems, concern about the potential higher energy use of these systems, lack of familiarity with these systems, safety concerns about amiable natural refrigerants, slow-moving codes and standards process, state policies that focus only on energy efficiency or refrigerant emissions and a lack of trained service technicians, Clegern said.

CARB is working on several fronts to address those barriers. The agency funded a research study at San Francisco State University to demonstrate the energy efficiency of natural refrigerant systems when compared with traditional systems. CARB is also conducting inhouse research to understand the energy use, performance and limitations of these systems, and Clegern said the board is participating in a number of codes and standards bodies to understand the process better and potentially speed it up.

If approved, The California Cooling Act (SB 1013) will provide incentives for the early adopters of natural refrigerants until these systems reach economies of scale, Clegern said. SB 1013 could potentially pave the way for incentives for environmentally friendly options such as natural refrigerants, Clergern said. “Members of the industry can choose to support the bill and follow its progress,” he explained.


Clegern said that right now there is a lot of confusion about the current status of refrigerant regulations in the United States. “Although the U.S. EPA SNAP rules do not apply currently for HFC prohibitions in new equipment, similar restrictions will apply in California beginning January 1, 2019,” he said. The full text of the California regulation incorporating the SNAP prohibitions in new equipment is on the CARB website at: https://www.arb.ca.gov/regact/2018/ casnap/isorappa.pdf.

“A misunderstanding among some operators about proposed California refrigerant regulations is that high-GWP refrigerant restrictions apply to existing equipment. This is not accurate. HighGWP restrictions modeled after the U.S. EPA SNAP Program apply to new equipment,” Clegern said. For example, if an old R-22 refrigerant systems or R-404A system was manufactured prior to effective dates covering new equipment, operators can use that older system as long as they want to.

“For example, no new R-22 may be produced or imported into the U.S. after January 1, 2020, but recovered and recycled R-22 can be used indefinitely,” Clegern said. “Therefore, you could keep your R-22 refrigeration and AC equipment operating many years past 2020.”

Other states are working with California and are considering adopting the SNAP requirements as well, Clegern said.


To be successful, the industry must work together to move towards natural refrigerants, Clegern said. “Technicians do not want to invest in training courses if there are not enough customers that use natural refrigerants and vice-versa, consumers do not want to invest in these systems if they will have trouble finding trained technicians,” he said.

“More training courses can be offered that emphasize the benefits and the safe use of natural refrigerants, especially flammable refrigerants. There are many fears about the use of flammable refrigerants and rigorous training and awareness is required to dispel those fears. Strict adherence to safety guidelines should be emphasized. Natural refrigerant systems have been safely used around the world for many years now,” Clegern said.