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Will this year be the turning point for a sustainable energy model?

The forecast that is emerging for the following decades on the health of our planet seems unequivocal. The lowering of air quality levels, climate change, rising sea levels, the extinction of numerous animal species and increasing deforestation are all signals announcing the beginning of a change that has never been seen in previous millennia. 
This is confirmed by the IPCC, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, which in its last report published alarming data on global warming, estimates that according to current trends there will be a 1.5°C rise in GMST (Global Mean Surface Temperature) between 2030 and 2052, with the latest surveys showing 2030 as the most likely.
The well-known environmental issues that are becoming increasingly urgent are not, therefore, just a passing fad or the leitmotif of progressive policies, but rather the pillar for building a culture of sustainable growth. It is no coincidence that the terms “culture” and “sustainability” need to go hand-in-hand to create a sustainable energy model, and that this is perhaps one of the most demanding intellectual and technical challenges of our times. 

This directly includes all applications that use refrigerant gases for room air-conditioning, or commercial and industrial refrigeration requirements. To understand how extensive these types of systems are, data shows that air-conditioning and refrigeration currently consume around 17.2% of the world’s electricity production [based on IEA data (2009) and IIR estimations (2015)], while 2% goes into commercial refrigeration applications (supermarkets) alone.

If we then add the fact that, according to known statistical data, commercial refrigeration systems lose on average every year up to 20% of their refrigerant charge, it is clear that such applications have a major environmental impact, due to both power consumption and atmospheric emissions of refrigerant gases. 

However let’s stop for a minute: why exactly are refrigerants suspected as being one of the main culprits responsible for global warming? And above all why might natural refrigerants be a solution?

The answer is simple and can be summed up by the acronym GWP

GWP (Global Warming Potential) is the index of how much one molecule of a certain greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride) contributes to the greenhouse effect compared to one molecule of CO2, a gas that is normally present in the atmosphere.
Despite ever more refined techniques being used for welding and charging systems, it is inevitable that small amounts of refrigerant will be released into the atmosphere. If we consider the fluorinated gas R404A, which has a high GWP of 3922, it means that every kg of refrigerant that “escapes” into the environment due to leaks or incorrect procedures has the same effect as releasing 3922 of carbon dioxide; from this it is easy to understand the risk that refrigerant gases can pose to the environment.

The evolution of refrigerant mixtures, from the 1930s until now, has always had the objective of reducing environmental impact. In this regard, the fluorinated gas regulation and the Kigali amendment are intended to drive the global market to gradually phase-out fluorinated refrigerants.

The needs of the modern world, however, cannot be fulfilled without all the equipment that makes our lives more comfortable and keeps our food fresh. Therefore, the main changes are being driven by European regulations, above all F-Gas, and are leading to the development of technological solutions aimed at the large-scale use of natural refrigerants (carbon dioxide, ammonia, propane and other hydrocarbons). The feeling that the entire commercial refrigeration business is adopting the motto “Go NatRef” is also confirmed by updated statistics published by Shecco, known as a “market accelerator” of innovative solutions for HVAC-R, with its recent “10 years challenge”:

Indeed, over the last 10 years the number of installations with natural refrigerants, in particular CO2, has seen impressive growth, with a surge in the last 2-3 years, confirming Europe’s position as the leader in this change. In fact, the number of CO2 units has increased by more than 30% in just one year, a sign that Europe intends to be a beacon for other countries.
And while Europe is calling out to other countries, these are certainly not looking on idly: Canada and North America overall recorded growth of over 30%, despite the total number of CO2 units being significantly lower than the number in Europe (over 16,000 at the end of 2018). 
An isolated yet virtuous example from Asia is Japan: while in 2017 it had more than 2700 transcritical CO2 systems, in just one year that number increased to more than 3500. 
This global growth trend is also affecting countries such as China and Russia, which have traditionally always followed their own unique technological development process.
Finally, interesting new markets have also opened up in warmer countries, such as South America, South Africa and Australia where, with the advent of increasingly efficient compressor rack solutions with parallel compression and ejectors, the use of CO2 refrigerant is becoming more appealing in the commercial refrigeration sector.
It is now a common belief that the global market for applications with natural refrigerants is destined to grow further in the immediate future, due to the consolidation of already structured markets and the opening of new frontiers.

As for the use of other natural refrigerants, hydrocarbons (butane or isobutane) are now standard in most household refrigerators: we probably don’t know it, but at home most of us have been using a “climate friendly” fridge for years now. In commercial refrigeration, on the other hand, especially in plug-in applications, propane leads the way: it is estimated that there are more than 2 million showcases (of different sizes) operating on propane, with companies such as Coca Cola, Red Bull, etc. have led the way many years ago. Ammonia is used above all in industrial applications, as despite its excellent thermodynamic properties, its characteristics make it difficult to apply in household/commercial applications.

In America, California has always focused on innovation, as demonstrated by the famous Silicon Valley companies. This state’s policies have always taken into consideration the most important environmental issues and may lay the foundations for a strong push towards natural refrigerants. CARB, the California Air Resource Board, in March 2017 approved a strategy to reduce 2013 HFC levels by 40% in 2030. The SLCP (Short-Lived Climate Pollutant) strategy will, starting from January 2022, ban the use of refrigerants with a GWP above 150 in systems with more than 50 lb (22.7 kg) of refrigerant: an excellent opportunity to start using CO2.

Globally, China is a case in hand, where environmental issues are becoming increasingly important in all walks of life. 
It has in fact now become a habit for Chinese citizens to check a smartphone app showing the air quality index before venturing out for a walk in the urban jungle. At the same time, various types of air purifiers are now commonplace in Chinese homes.

Soon the sense of shared responsibility, one that is already strongly felt regarding emissions and air pollution, may induce the government to encourage the same choice made by Europe, committing itself to a transition to increasingly efficient refrigeration systems that use natural refrigerants. This could open up to an unprecedented market opportunity.

The global scenario is therefore evolving positively from year to year, and the trends in growth for high-efficiency HVAC-R applications with natural refrigerants are increasingly encouraging. If in 2018 CAREL alone managed to triple its CO2 and propane installations compared to 2017, we cannot expect anything less for 2019... and maybe even more!

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