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The importance of refrigerants in building life-cycles... and some greenwashing
The refrigerants used in buildings, are to me like the smallest of the nested dolls.
I like to think of the outside doll, being the whole building. The middle, being the HVAC (heating or cooling) services, and the third, inside doll, being the refrigerant.
While it might appear to be the smallest, the environmental impacts of the refrigerant ‘doll’ can be outsized. Once it might have been considered immaterial, but that is changing. Faster than some may realise.
In recent years, there has been increasing awareness of the entire life-cycle emissions of buildings. Sometimes referred to as whole life carbon, or WLC. That means not just the emissions from the building while it is in operation, but also those from all the raw extraction, construction process, and demolition also.
This awareness is now working its way down into the various building sub-systems. For example, those providing HVAC equipment are starting to provide life-cycle emissions data for their individual components. The TM65 framework by CIBSE, does a very good job of providing a methodology for the accounting of services sub-systems. It also does well to highlight the importance of operational emissions form refrigerant leaks.
What perhaps needs further work across the whole industry, is accurate information on the life-cycle emissions of the refrigerants themselves. This is one area where I’ve found comparatively few recent studies. Or otherwise studies that treat life-cycle as starting with use and destruction but not manufacture.
Partly perhaps due to some of the upstream manufacturing processes being patented, or otherwise not disclosed for competitve reasons. Plus, while some of the manufacturing companies may report their total site emissions, it is difficult to break them down to a particular production pathway (i.e. how much can be attributed to a specific refrigerant being manufactured).
The same challenges exist downstream. There is little emissions information available for refrigerants at their end-of-life. Same may be recovered and re-used, some vented to atmosphere and some destroyed. Emissions are attributable in all cases, but not always easy to track, especially if an organisation has handed off responsibility to someone else. As in, they have sent it ‘away’.
The life-cycle emissions become more important when talking about so-called ‘low-GWP’ synthetic refrigerants (e.g. HFOs). When looking at fugitive emissions during operation, they may be ‘low’, but this is not the case when considering the upstream and downstream impacts. Both in terms of the manufacturing energy use, but also the other environmental considerations (such as break down into PFAS).
From what I’ve seen there is a lack of refrigerant data in life-cycle databases. As a result, it may continue to serve the idea that emissions related to refrigerant life-cycle are immaterial.
This can then lead to erroneous decisions being made around certain refrigerants, and ultimately the HVAC equipment, which stays in place for a long time. We are now entering territory where, in some cases, the wrong selection may lead to an asset being stranded or require replacement early.
Materiality was further highlighted again in the recent GRESB / PCAF technical guidance for buildings. The point being made below.
If financial institutions do not track and disclose fugitive (refrigerant) emissions, they shall disclose why they did not do so, their plans assess the materiality of fugitive emissions in their real estate portfolios, and their plans to collect and disclose this information in the future.
Also keep in mind ‘The Morph’. As our electricity grids decarbonise, refrigerant emissions are only going to become more prominent, and ultimately much more material.
You’ve been given a heads-up here.
Where the F-gas hides
Each week I provide an example of where f-gases are utilised, or used to produce something. They are present in more things than most people realise… #wherethefgashides
You may recall last week, I looked at where all the refrigerants were hiding along my journey through the airport on a recent trip. A rare long-haul visit to see family.
I decided to break up the trip with an overnight stopover. I was happy to reach my hotel room and proceeded to turn down the over-enthusiastic air-conditioning. Then my eyes wondered over to the minibar fridge. But not for the contents…
There was nice big sticker on the front proclaiming this was a ‘Green Life’ fridge, and that it didn’t contain any CFCs (ozone depleting refrigerants). This was a recently retrofitted hotel from a large international chain so that was the least I would expect.
Being curious however, I wanted to see just exactly what refrigerant the fridge was using. Sometimes the label is on the inside, but alas not for this model. So being persistent I proceeded to work the fridge out of its housing until there was just enough room to the get my hand, and a phone around the back for a photo.
Lo and behold, our ‘Green Life’ fridge contained R134a which has a global warming potential value of 1530 (AR6), more than a thousand times greater than CO2. While not containing a large amount of refrigerant, it is hardly green. I recently covered a real green effort for fridges here.
Unfortunately, there appears to be a bit of greenwashing going on currently. The equivalent of companies sticking a ‘Green’ label on the front and hoping no one ever goes around the back to check… Some of us are curious, however.
Right, that’s all for this week and ‘til next time.
p.s. the title track from last week’s newsletter – Flying High – was from the album ‘Finally Woken’ by Jem
p.p.s. if you have a particular interest in mini fridges it is worth taking a look at the work of the Yale Refrigerant Initiative and their work to make a difference on campus
Fixed stuff here for newcomers
There is lots of news every week from the cooling industry and plenty of newsletters that cover it well. The intention is to keep this newsletter focused on the most prominent f-gases (fluorinated greenhouse gases), the most common of which are refrigerants and importantly their environmental impact. That’s the lane I’ve chosen - I’ll do my best to stick to it.
Below is the seven (formal) greenhouse gases that countries and companies should track, report and hopefully reduce.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6)
Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
There is also the still circulating, ozone damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and the ‘new-generation’ hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs).
Hopefully you can spot the pattern.
Emissions from f-gases and refrigerants have been the fastest growing greenhouse gases over the past decade (more than CO2 and methane - check out IPCC WG3 summary for policy makers). They are also classed as super pollutants given their outsized global warming and other environmental impacts.
Some useful permalinks
The scale of the climate challenge can often feel daunting. This piece helps me take a step back and understand where we need to focus first - recommend a read.
There are plenty of technology solutions available to address the cooling and refrigerant challenge. You can find many of them here
Beware when the same entities who have contributed to the current f-gas problem propose you new solutions… This is a good place to get up to speed.