Pandemic Pressure and Growing Acceptance of Natural Refrigerants in Europe

By Monika Witt, Managing Director Of Th. Witt Gmbh, Germany, Eurammon Board Member

As in other regions of the world, the past months have been heavily influenced by the global pandemic. But despite or perhaps because of the pressures introduced by the pandemic, business in European industrial refrigeration has increased quite a lot, and as such, the difficulty has been and still is to maintain the human resources to continue working even with pandemic-related challenges.

Interestingly, business grew even without the ability to visit customers or exhibitions. On one hand, this may be because of the many networks and industry connections – formed over a long period pre-pandemic. The rather conservative industrial refrigeration industry may now be relying on those established relationships. But on the other hand, a decrease in business may still be on its way once the crisis has calmed.

For the time being, industrial refrigeration companies in Europe all seem to have more work than they can handle. In addition to the pressures introduced by the pandemic, the supply of raw materials, components and electronic devices has narrowed, introducing increasing difficulty and slowing companies down.

Employees of purchasing departments have spent hours attempting to manage delivery times (if they get fixed delivery dates at all) and struggling to compensate for heavily increased prices. We will have to see within the next month how the increased prices will affect the long-term projects. Nearly finished projects will have to be completed despite the higher cost, but new projects might be postponed when possible.

The actual supply situation has resulted in a renunciation of “just-in-time” processes, and a reversion back to the days of larger available stocks of materials. However, the tendency to stock more materials and components – for the majority of European companies – is deteriorating the situation by increasing the demand even further.

It will be interesting to see how the market is reacting once everybody has stocked the maximum capacity possible. Will we then see falling prices and shorter delivery times? Will we ever get back to a pre-pandemic situation? Nobody knows… The trend towards more sustainable and resource-efficient refrigeration has started some years ago and is in full swing. Particularly in Germany, where the Green Party is now part of the government, political motivation will push green technology further.

Michael Freiherr, chairman of eurammon, observed that supermarket chains are now moving towards “net-zero” operation by using waste heat to cool the market, and they are working with propane heat pumps. Lidl has recently commissioned a net-zero prototype, and when this is successful, more “netzero” markets may soon follow.

Thomas Spänich, a member of the eurammon board, confirms Michael’s observation and sees that overall heat pump demand has increased heavily and predicts it will continue to grow. He states that industries and communities are developing or already have specific plans to become carbon-free, and heat pumps are one, if not the integral part, for the decarbonization of heating supply. The heating demands in Europe are often many times higher than the cooling demands. Heat pumps can be perfectly combined with cooling requirements by directly and very efficiently using the waste heat from refrigeration processes as a heat source or working as a combined cooling and heating device.

Thomas underlines that a holistic approach covering capacities – demands on different temperature levels using chillers and heat pumps operating together – provides massive energy saving potential and yields not only ecologic but also economic benefits, irrespective of carbon taxes.

With increased heat pump installation, it is a question whether electrical energy savings will be realized soon, particularly when using the cooling possibility as well. We have seen that air conditioning demand is growing when summers get hotter in Europe (with the exception of last summer). As a result, solar and wind energy have to be pushed much harder, and the electrical grid must be upgraded and extended much faster, than in the past years.

Andrew Stockman, also a eurammon board member, sees that natural refrigerants are generally gaining more interest because they have proven to be reliable, sustainable, and are less affected by everchanging, stricter regulations.

Even the latest French regulation for ammonia refrigeration systems has adopted several design and safety aspects related to safe distances between the machine room and inhabited areas – towards the requirements of European standard EN 378. Andrew underlines that this also applies to the piping and the condensers located outside the refrigerated warehouse. These updates have made it less challenging to design and install ammonia refrigeration systems in France while keeping health and safety as the highest priority.

Meanwhile, investigations have revealed the potential contamination of aquatic systems when increasing the output of HFO in mobile air conditioning systems. And HFOs for stationary systems seem to have a much higher GWP than calculated because decomposition under a certain wavelength in the atmosphere seems to have been missed when looking at the risk potential.

As in the past, synthetic alternatives seem to come with negative side effects that have not been anticipated. This may be one of the reasons why more and more end-users are looking into natural refrigeration options, like ammonia and carbon dioxide, as the sustainable solution in the long term. And those attracted by the safety aspect of former synthetic refrigerants may look into options with the A1 refrigerant CO2 or opt for low charge systems limiting the use of the refrigerant (whether it is i.e. A3 like propane or B2 like ammonia) to the machinery room.

Andrew also sees a fast-growing development of CO2 refrigeration systems. In some European countries carbon dioxide has developed quickly, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavia (and now we can see a trend back towards more ammonia), whereas in other countries the acceptance is improving, and as such, more CO2 projects are underway. The improved efficiency of CO2 systems when using ejector or expander technology may pave the way for increased success.

Although a lot of investigations went into batteries and the use of solar and wind to produce electrical energy, hydrogen technology seems to be positioned for success in the next few years. Thomas reported that there are investigations underway to store hydrogen in ammonia or even use ammonia directly in larger shipping vessels as “green fuel.” We will see whether this will result in wider acceptance of the public or how safely these large quantities can be handled.

From my point of view, every refrigeration technician will feel a little uneasy at the prospect of using tons of ammonia on a ship without escape routes. And it will be essential to make sure the people dealing with ammonia are trained adequately. The hydrogen production is depending on refrigeration and this may offer new opportunities as well. Overall, refrigeration technology is seeing increasing demand, and not only in Europe!