Nidec global appliance R&D manage, Jozef Sedliak, explains why hydrocarbons are the best option to create an environmentally sustainable refrigeration industry.
When it comes to dealing with the world’s carbon (CO2) emissions and their impact on global warming the refrigeration industry has an important role to play.
This industry is essential to the preservation of food, beverages, medicine, vaccines, lab samples and the list about its importance to mankind goes on and on. It means quality of life, comfort and health. But, on the other hand, it is responsible for approximately 10 per cent of global CO2 emissions, according to some estimates researched by Birmingham University.
The study also says that “around 20 to 25 per cent of CO2 emissions from the cooling sector are produced by leaks of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant gases (‘F-gases’). The other 75 per cent of the cooling sector’s emissions, according to the same study, is from energy consumption.
So, at Nidec Global Appliance, holder of the refrigeration solutions brand Embraco, we decided to calculate how much the migration to natural refrigerants can contribute to this fight.
We found out that summing up the last 11 years, from 2010 to 2021, the evolution in the mix of Embraco compressors models sold in the world, gradually migrating from hydro-fluorocarbons (HFCs) to natural refrigerants, has allowed the potential emissions saving of 1,568,025 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) from being released in the atmosphere.
That is the same as taking 341,000 cars off the streets for a year, according to the online calculator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The calculation considers the migration from the two main types of HFCs in refrigeration equipment:
- From R404A, the main refrigerant gas used in commercial refrigeration for decades, with a global warming potential (GWP) of 3,920, to the hydrocarbon R290, a natural refrigerant with a GWP of 3.
- From R134a, used in residential refrigeration (with GWP of 1,430), to the hydrocarbon R600a, another natural refrigerant also with a GWP of 3.
The percentage of Embraco sold compressors running on natural refrigerants (hydrocarbons) has evolved from 40 per cent of the total in 2010 to 57 per cent in the projections for 2021. The change has accelerated pace in the last few years. It was 49 per cent in 2019, meaning an increase of eight percentage points in just two years.
Numbers like these demonstrate the significant contribution the refrigeration industry can make to our future.
The refrigeration industry can contribute in two ways. Firstly, by reducing our own impact on the environment. And by offering equipment that can reduce emissions.
The Paris Agreement target is to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5, compared to pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.
In addition to that, there are also global and regional treaties and regulations focused exclusively on the reduction of HFCs emissions, like the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which entered into force in January 2019, inviting countries to gradually reduce the use of HFCs until 2047. There is also the F-Gas regulation in the European Union, which has been gradually limiting the use of HFCs since 2006.
At Nidec Global Appliance, we embraced the challenge by reducing HFC use and improving the energy efficiency of our products to reduce both direct and indirect CO2 emissions. Direct are the emissions generated by refrigerant leaks or the incorrect final disposal of the compressor and indirect are the emissions generated in the process of producing the energy that will be consumed by refrigeration equipment.
Embraco has been developing solutions with natural refrigerants, more specifically hydrocarbons (HCs), since 1994. After years and years of studies and tests, we believe that HCs are the future. Following are the reasons why:
Lower global warming potential. HCs have very low global warming potential, as we can see in the numbers presented in the beginning of this text. So the reduction in CO2e emissions when using hydrocarbons is significant.
Improvement in energy efficiency. Our case studies show that the migration from the HFC R404A to the natural refrigerant R290, on average, can allow up to a 10 per cent improvement in energy saving.
Better thermal regime compared to other synthetic options. In parallel to natural refrigerants, there are the new synthetic blends presently available in the market with low GWP, also known as A2Ls. The table (pictured) shows the main criteria that should be taken into consideration when reaching a decision. One of these criteria is the thermal regime, which is better in natural refrigerants, meaning it doesn't heat up the compressor as much as the A2Ls. This aspect contributes to the energy efficiency and the reliability of the compressor.
The flammability aspect of hydrocarbons has been very well managed by safety standards, in production and maintenance. The migration to hydrocarbons in residential refrigeration in Europe, for example, with the use of R600a with low charges, has proven to be successful and safe.
In addition to natural refrigerants the other technology at hand that can significantly reduce emissions, indirect in this case, is variable speed. The gain is in energy efficiency in comparison with fixed speed (also known as on-off), which is the most traditional technology used in refrigeration. An on-off compressor operates at a constant speed, continuously switching between on and off to meet the refrigeration equipment’s cooling demands.
This operational pattern requires abrupt power loads when starting; as a result the compressor maintains the maximum speed for all the running period independently from the thermal load, which leads to wasted energy.
Variable speed compressors have more technology embedded, to decrease their working speed when reaching the target temperature and also increase it when there is need for more heat removal, without switching on and off. This enables the compressor to use only the amount of energy required at each moment and nothing more, saving energy.
The percentage of savings varies according to the application but, our case studies with Embraco compressors, show it can be at least 15 per cent and as high as 40 per cent.
The technology has a higher upfront cost, but it is compensated by the savings in the electricity bill in the medium term. Some commercial refrigeration investments pay for themselves in six months.
We can see that there are technologies available for more sustainable cooling, which have proven to be safe and cost effective to help achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. The matter now is speed of adoption. According to EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency):“implementation of the Kigali Amendment could avoid up to an additional 0.4°C of global warming by the end of the century, and significantly more if opportunities to improve energy efficiency during the transition are taken up and the HFC phase down schedule is accelerated wherever possible”.