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The world has turned and left me
What's left behind once we've decarbonised our building energy use
In the last week I managed to catch the latest edition of the excellent Nexus podcast. It was featuring Tristam Coffin from Effecterra talking about refrigerant management, a topic that normally doesn’t get much airtime. I urge you to take a listen, especially if you are coming from the building space and trying to understand if this is actually a thing, and is it worth caring about (both yes of course). Tristam brought up a point which I’d touched on before, but he had a good way to put it. This idea, that once we decarbonise the energy in our buildings, we will have one significant greenhouse gas left behind. The refrigerant emissions.
The last one standing
It is something I first started to notice when I moved to France. Previously, I’d spent close to a decade working on energy efficiency projects in Singapore. The building decarbonisation conversation there, was around electricity emissions, given most of the grid is fossil-based. Getting to France however, with a low-carbon grid already in place (lots of nuclear coupled with hydro, wind and solar) electricity emissions were rarely discussed.
There is still fossil gas use in buildings for heating. However, with the push to migrate to heat-pumps running on clean electricity, it is not difficult to see a time, not too far away, where there is little in the way of operational Scope 1 combustion emissions from gas, or Scope 2 emissions from electricity.
In previous conversations, I’d referred to this shift, as ‘The Morph’. The scenario which raises a question. Once we’ve (hopefully), managed to eliminate much of our building energy-related emissions, what are we left with? For many facilities, that happens to be the direct emissions from refrigerants. The leaks while our air-conditioning and heat-pumps are in operation plus what escapes at end of life.
Why is this shift important?
The reality is that most corporate inventories omit refrigerant emissions today. Many from being unaware, many from (incorrectly) believing the emissions aren’t material. Not being big enough to care about.
For some, refrigerant emissions might be a small percentage of overall GHGs today. However, once you take ‘The Morph’ into account and electrify your cooling or heating using renewable electricity, your refrigerant emissions are going to be staring you large in the face.
Looking at you, data centre operators.
And if you haven’t accounted for them previously, there will be third parties starting to ask why? Questions will be asked if your competitors have reported them, and you haven’t. Refrigerants exist everywhere. Especially given the array of reporting frameworks (including the proposed SEC, ESRS etc) calling for the inclusion of HFC refrigerant emissions
This is a big consideration if you are planning capital projects of new equipment (e.g. chillers and VRVs) filled with HFC refrigerants. Assets that are going to be in place for the next fifteen plus years while your electricity decarbonises over the same period.
Or perhaps you’re thinking, I’m going to be moving to low-GWP refrigerants shortly, so this won’t be an issue. Remember, close to zero, is still not zero. And with increasing attention being paid to Scope 3 emissions (from your value chain) you need to consider the emissions from the manufacture of your refrigerant also. Which, for HFOs can be quite energy intensive, that’s aside to the toxic by-products.
Accurately tracking, reporting, and importantly reducing refrigerant emissions can be done. As also mentioned in the podcast, it does take some effort, and every drop counts. No one said this was going to be easy, but if you need a hand, just shout.
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…
I’ve built up a decent list now of places and products where you can find f-gases. It can be hard to pick one each week. As has happened several times previously, this week’s ended up staring me in the face…
I use the morning shower as a bit of me time, often to reflect and consider what to write. As I stared out through the glass door, I saw a small sticker. I hadn’t given it much thought before and as I’m in a rented property I hadn’t bothered to remove it. It mentioned there was a special ‘easy clean’ formula applied to the glass.
I’d observed that the glass was particularly good at repelling water and soap. Then the light bulb (the one in my head) went on. What do you commonly find in slippery stuff? Fluorochemicals…
First thing I did getting out of the shower, hair still wet, was an Ecosia (engine of choice) search and sure enough there it was. My shower had a fluoropolymer coating.
As we’ve touched on before, there are a few issues with the manufacture of fluorinated products (see my broken record link here as a start). I did go down a few rabbit holes with regards to shower coatings, and with several patents in place, it is hard to confirm exactly how they are manufactured. However, we do know that many fluoropolymers are manufactured with the ozone depleting, high-GWP and toxic f-gas HCFC-22, used as a feedstock.
If there are any chemistry folks who know and would like to share the synthesis pathways for shower coatings, please chip in.
And here’s the thing. The marketing keeps telling us how much better off we are because of some of these fluorinated products. I appreciate the easy cleaning, but are the growing GHG by-product emissions and toxicity concerns worth it?
I would suggest not.
Right, that’s it for this week and ‘till next time.
p.s. the song title for last week’s edition – Radiate – was from Jack Johnson and the album From Here To Now To You. I have many of his records so likely so you’ll see a few more titles crop up…
p.p.s. you may notice I’ve used an AI generated image at the top. Where possible I try to use artists or photographers and pass on credit but I couldn’t find anything suitable this week so I went the generation route… which suffice to say is quite a thing
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.