Colorado officials, scientists already warm to the idea of banning coolants found in air conditioners

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National Renewable Energy Laboratory HVAC expert Jon Winkler, left, and Senior Engineer Chuck Booten, right, work on testing various air conditioning units at the NREL HVAC Systems Laboratory (photo courtesy of NREL)

Engineers, by their nature, are generally not optimistic or enthusiastic about, well, much of anything.

When Chuck Booten, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, was asked his thoughts about President Biden’s desire to ban hydrofluorocarbon by 2050, he said: “We are moving in the right direction.”

For any non-engineer, this statement is the equivalent of spiking the football in the endzone.

The truth is most people are celebrating this move by the Biden Administration to ban hydrofluorocarbons, which we will call HFCs, by 2050, and some aren’t as resigned about it as Booten. The move will cut HFCs by 85 percent in 15 years, and that’s significant, as HFCs, the most common refrigerant in home and vehicle air conditioning as well as commercial refrigeration, are a big cause of climate change. HFCs, in fact, are 12,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide in their contribution to climate change. (See sidebar to learn more than you ever wanted to know about coolants.)

“For consumers, they will still be able to use their air conditioners and get parts for them. Eventually, when their air conditioner completely dies, they will have to get a new one that doesn’t use HFC.” — Chuck Booten, Senior Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Biden hopes to accomplish the ban by getting Congress to ratify the Kigali Amendment (see box). Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association of Colorado has not taken an official stance on the Biden ban. Nationally, industry groups have supported the move. But renewable energy scientists such as Booten are super excited, even if they don’t want to show it, and many believe that consumers, and the industry, won’t notice much of a difference.

“There really isn’t a downside, unless you only manufacture HFCs,” Booten said. “For consumers, they will still be able to use their air conditioners and get parts for them. Eventually, when their air conditioner completely dies, they will have to get a new one that doesn’t use HFC.”

Booten said those newer units may be slightly more expensive, but with their advanced technology , they won’t require as much energy to power them. Non-HFC units may be slightly larger than previous ones: They aren’t as efficient, so they need more surface area. In vehicles, most cars manufactured in Europe already are using non-HFC technology, and the U.S. is expected to follow suit in the coming years with Biden’s ratification.

In Colorado, the Air Pollution Control Division of the Department of Public Health and Environment oversees the ban signed by Polis in May of 2020.

“Our analysis expects the rule to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 1.15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents by 2030,” said the department’s spokesman Andrew Bare, speaking about Colorado’s impact.

Bare agrees that the impact to industry and consumers will be minimal, as the state rule hasn’t seemed to affect them much in Colorado. “Our rule phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons in aerosol propellants, chillers, foams and stationary refrigeration units in Colorado took effect for aerosols, chillers and some refrigeration units on Jan. 1,” he said. “Regulated entities are working to comply with the rule as required, though, as with any new rule, we anticipate some entities may have more of a challenge complying than others.”

That challenge, according to Scott Menzie, owner of Air Craft Heating and Air Conditioning in Boulder County, is making consumers aware of the issues and getting them to demand that higher standard.

“If the government is making the standard, there will alway be people to try to get around it,” Menzie said, “but if consumers demand it, it is much more likely to actually happen.”

Menzie said that may be difficult.

“There has been a broader interest from consumers about the environmental side of things,” he said, noting his 27 years in the industry. “But it is still a back-burner issue for a lot of people.”

But all that may not matter. Menzie noted that getting the correct size of the unit for the home and having it professionally installed will have a bigger impact on climate change than any that comes from the manufacturing side.

Booten agrees that while HFCs are definitely a concern, they are a small part of what he calls in nerd-speak the “Global Warming Potential” of an air conditioner.

According to a 2016 Department of Energy report, air conditioning systems in buildings account for nearly 700 million metric tons of direct and indirect CO2-equivalent emissions annually. About three-quarters of those emissions are from the electricity generated to run them. In other words, the refrigerant impact is only about 20-25 percent: The energy to run them leaves a much bigger footprint.

This is why companies are continuing to find ways to improve the electrical efficiency of the units.

Scott Nicholson, an NREL researcher who recently co-authored a paper on the coolant marketplace, pointed out that as the planet continues to get hotter and developing countries are becoming more affluent, the market for air conditioning is expected to boom. The International Energy Agency projects that A/C energy consumption by 2050 will increase 4.5 times over 2010 levels for many developing countries. Most of those countries have not signed on to the Kigali Amendment, meaning they will probably use the less expensive HFC units.

The U.S. has led the world in research into new refrigerants, including blends. But Europe and China are leading in production on hardware. Recently, many of the large U.S. corporations like Honeywell and Kenmore have announced they are into production on non-HFC units.

All of those changes will have an impact, and Colorado is very proud of leading the way.

While Colorado was one of 17 states to start banning HFCs last year, the wording of the state ban was the first to adopt the framework laid out from the U.S. Climate Alliance, Bare said.

“Colorado has long been a leader in finding dynamic, effective solutions to promote a healthier environment,” he said.

What is the Kigali Amendment?

The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol essentially calls for the ban of hydrofluorocarbons by the year 2050. It was signed by 197 countries in 2016 – including the US, but it was never ratified by Congress. The move by the Biden Administration in January signals to Congress that he is pushing for that ratification.

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