Global Perspectives on Integrating Natural Refrigerants

The use of natural refrigerants is increasing as governments, investors, and end users work to reduce the use of high-global warming potential refrigerants. Europe has been at the forefront, promoting the use of natural refrigerants through regulations and incentives, but challenges remain in other areas. Those involved in refrigerants globally said it would take increased awareness and, possibly, regulatory changes to facilitate the adoption of lower GWP solutions.

Amanda Brondy, vice president of international projects for the Global Cold Chain Alliance, works on cold chain development in emerging markets, such as Angola, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. “In speaking with cold chain investors in new markets, a lot of companies are completely unaware of the phase down of HFCs,” Brondy said. “As recently as 2020, there was an investment in Egypt using R22, which was effectively phased out that same year.

Even if governments have signed on to policies, the information hasn’t always reached current or potential cold chain operators.” In some markets, synthetic refrigerants are much more prominent and easier to access. “Because of that, the companies that have invested in cold chain are using those,” Brondy said. “Unless someone is working to understand natural refrigerants, they will do what other people are doing.”

Dr. Michael Riese, manager for defense business and R&D at industrial refrigeration contractor Cold Logic, said he sees a lack of awareness in Australia. One of the challenges in the country is that it has its own legislation that isn’t modeled after any other regulatory requirements. “It is a very inward-looking country. There is very little view in terms of what happens outside of Australia,” Riese explained. “We know HFCs and HFOs are going to be reduced further and further in Europe, and they are well and truly on their way to getting low GWP refrigerants and using natural refrigerants to a larger and larger extent in their countries.”

Eventually, manufacturers will stop making equipment that uses HFCs and HFOs. “It might be cheaper right now, but in three to four years, you won’t be able to get the parts,” Riese said. “We like to think we’re independent and do everything ourselves, but the reality is most companies are all Australian subsidiaries of big multinationals. If the companies decide to stop manufacturing certain articles overseas, they aren’t going to make equipment just for Australia.”

Brondy said she is seeing some increased desire among end users to know and understand natural refrigerants, which makes it important to ensure the right information is easily accessible. “There is a great desire to learn,” she said. The Global Cold Chain Foundation works to ensure people have access to the right information and know the questions they need to ask so they make informed decisions. “In a lot of countries cold chain is so new that there isn’t a local refrigeration association,” Brondy explained. “There is a need for more people to understand what those investments look like.”

As part of her work, Brondy is currently involved in a project in Ghana, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, and she is sharing information about the processes and procedures that need to be in place to transition to natural refrigerants. She noted that many companies and organizations funding cold chain projects are doing so to help reduce food waste.

“They see the cold chain as a solution for reducing food waste, but concurrently, they don’t want to invest in refrigerants that would negate the sustainability gains made by reducing food waste,” Brondy said. “That is a positive for the natural refrigerant market, and they do have a vested interest in natural refrigerants and making sure the investments and grants they’re making will have a net zero impact on the environment.”

The initial investment in natural refrigerants can be higher than synthetics, which can create a barrier. “I have members serving as project advisors, and they’ll point out the lower operating costs of natural refrigerant systems, but that case may not resonate as strongly with someone because first they have to get through the capital expenditure,” Brondy said.

The narrative that while equipment is slightly more expensive now but will be cheaper in the next five to ten years doesn’t resonate with end users in Australia. “Smaller end customers are purely interested in the capital expense in the first instance, not so much the ongoing maintenance costs,” Riese said. Although natural refrigerants have been used for more than 100 years, Brondy said there can still concerns about safety among some users. “In India, many of our members will have facilities right outside of large cities and may feel the risk is too great given the proximity to large populations,” she explained. Riese said he also hears safety concerns being used as a potential deterrent for natural refrigerant adoption.

“Because there is a great misunderstanding around the dangers around ammonia, that is being exploited and worked against by the HFC lobby,” he said, adding that manufacturers selling synthetic refrigerants say they are safer. “There is a bit of friction on the industrial side with providers for transcritical CO2 systems pointing to the corrosive nature of NH3 but neglecting to mention the energy penalty for CO2 when compared to ammonia.”

There are supermarkets in Australia turning to transcritical CO2, but most small commercial and residential applications use HFC- and HFO based refrigerants. He expects to see more interest in hydrocarbon water chillers, which is a new trend. Australia has signed up to Kigali and Montreal and has import quotas of CO2 equivalent, but it doesn’t apply to pre-charged equipment. “Due to the impact and influence of the manufacturing lobby, any pre-charged equipment with HFOs and HFCs are excluded from the quota,” Riese said. “Theoretically, Australia should be well ahead of reduction of high GWP refrigerants.”

Yet between 2016 and 2021, the actually installed average GWP has only reduced minimally due to the pre-charged equipment exemption. “We’re now very, very slowly seeing a reduction in 404A, but even at this point, it is still so cheap that there is no requirement for people to reduce it,” Riese said.

There is currently work in Australia to re-write the licensing as well as the issue around installed base and import quotas, but Riese said the HVAC equipment manufacturing lobby is very powerful. Another challenge in Australia is around its four-year apprenticeship training-based program. “To work as a refrigeration technician in Australia, you have to have a license for some parts,” Dr Riese explained. “To work with HFC and HCFCs you have to have a license, which is only available after an internship. For hydrocarbons, you don’t have to have license.”

As a result, CO2 and hydrocarbons are treated as electives during trade school-based residency, and they are few and far between. “That is because the trainers and educators don’t have the knowledge. Ammonia is completely foreign to them. They haven’t worked with it, and it is going to be hard to find the training,” Riese said. “What that means for us as a contractor is we have to train our own people.”

IIAR is also continuing its work with globally. During IIAR’s annual conference, IIAR representatives met with Latin American members, discussing their needs and how to best promote IIAR programs in the region. IIAR staff and volunteers also met with representatives from the Chinese Association of Refrigeration to discuss how the groups might work together on common goals. IIAR recently signed a memorandum of understanding with International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR), which focuses on the global need for cooling and providing it in an efficient and sustainable manner.

“The goals are to work together to promote natural refrigerants and their implementation through education, seminars, and programming,” said Eric Smith, IIAR’s vice president and technical director.