Natural Refrigerants in North America: A once-in-a lifetime opportunity

By Simon Burkel, Jun 24, 2013, 12:03 3 minute reading

During the first day of ATMOsphere America 2013 industry leaders in commercial and industrial refrigeration drew attention to the business opportunities in tune with environmental protection that an early switch to HFC-free solutions will bring to North America. Speakers and audience agreed that better education of contractors and customers would be needed to avoid false claims, optimise risk and cost assessment, and opt for the best system even when selecting among different HFC-free solutions.

Day 1 of ATMOsphere America 2013, held from 17-19 June in Washington DC, brought lively discussions among the 200 participants experienced with or interested in using natural refrigerants for heating, cooling and refrigeration. A fruitful debate arose over the viability of CO2 as compared to ammonia in industrial applications – an indication of the advanced state some parts of the industry have entered where healthy competition between different HFC-free options could provide further impetus to the market. 
Distil the large amounts of information and ask the right questions for best technology selection
This aspect was first stressed by Mark Tomooka, Mayekawa, who insisted that enough evidence of the technical viability of natural refrigerant-based systems already exists, and that the challenge for suppliers is now to distil this information to select the optimal solution for each end-user. In a situation where the HVAC&R industry would have “an opportunity that comes once in a generation” to transform itself, Mayekawa has developed an innovative NH3/CO2 solution for the supermarket environment, where the ammonia charge is kept below 250 lbs (113 kg). Installed in the Carpinteria store, the first “all-natural” supermarket in the USA, the proof of concept has been successful in showing that a low-charge NH3 system can be competitive with other systems. Efficiency gains range from 13-30%, depending on the model used. Although the system would not be repeatable in a different environment, it was outstanding in terms of ease of operation as it allowed the assistant store manager to independently put the system back into operation when there was an interruption on New Year’s Eve. With all check boxes for a low environmental impact, a high energy efficiency, a compact and market-priced solution, and established operation and maintenance procedures ticked, further market success for CO2-NH3 systems in the retail environment would now largely depend on the industry’s education about their benefits.  
International move towards HFC phase-down will drive the market
Masood Ali from Heatcraft drew attention to the role regulatory initiatives can play in the adoption of HFC-free solutions. Referring to on-going discussions about a significant HFC cut and possible HFC bans in HVAC&R equipment in the European Union, and the influence of the HFC levy in Australia, Ali suggested that California could play a vital role in driving the market in the USA. That markets for natural refrigerants are maturing could be seen in positive developments in the availability of appropriate standards, including the UL approval for CO2 transcritical (TC) compressors offered by 3 major manufacturers in the last 6 months, and a likely soon-to-happen update to ASHRAE standard 15 to include CO2 TC options. However, although the supplier base for CO2 commercial refrigeration technology would be constantly increasing and costs would be decreasing, a lack of economies of scope and scale still impede a more rapid market uptake. On the other hand, looking at the total cost of ownership (TCO), natural refrigerants-based systems would show a clear energy efficiency advantage. Even in the hottest conditions like in Tampa, Florida, CO2 transcritical systems would only be 5% less energy efficient than a centralised conventional system, whereas in the climatic conditions of Edmonton, Québec, Boston and Toledo, they would clearly outperform traditional solutions. Until the remaining CO2 TC efficiency deficit is entirely solved through new developments, NH3-CO2 cascade solutions would perhaps be the best option in all ambient temperatures, saving up to more than 30% of energy. The business case for natural refrigerant solutions would now be well established with lower TCO as compared to centralised systems, for both CO2 TC and NH3-CO2 cascade solutions. As a conclusion, Ali called on the industry to invest more effort into the education of contractors, as lack of familiarity does not currently allow for all possible cost savings to be seized due to a lack of familiarity with the systems. 


By Simon Burkel

Jun 24, 2013, 12:03

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