A secret vote in Byzantine and arcane worlds of international safety standards last month could lead to a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from cooling systems and heating systems in the future.
Two dozen technical experts from all over the globe voted unanimously to approve the proposed update to the household appliance safety standard established by the Geneva-based International Electrotechnical Commission, (IEC) in a closed-door meeting that ended April 29.
The IEC establishes safety standards for thousands household appliances. The international standard serves to guide country-specific safety standards like UL, formerly Underwriters Laboratories safety standard in U.S. The safety standards are usually confidential and details about the subcommittees responsible for them are kept private. IEC declined to disclose additional information, including names of individual representatives from countries who approved the update.
IEC shared the draft with Inside Climate News. IEC intends to publish the update next year. This update could solve a major climate problem that has long plagued manufacturers and suppliers of high efficiency electric heating systems, known as heat pumps. They wanted to use climate-friendly refrigerants, but were prevented from doing so.
Today’s heat pumps and air conditioners rely on HFCs, synthetic chemical refrigerants which, when released into the atmosphere, can be extremely potent greenhouse gases. The updated safety standard will allow appliance manufacturers instead to use hydrocarbon frigerants that have negligible impacts on the climate.
The Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental organization based in Washington that has advocated for the use of hydrocarbon refrigerants for decades and was one of the first to publicly announce the results of IEC’s vote, says the change could save the equivalent of billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
“This is a crucial milestone because this sector, the air conditioning sector, needs to transition away from HFCs if we are to even keep the hope alive of staying within a 1.5 degree Celsius warming world,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, EIA’s climate campaign lead.
HFC-410a is the most common chemical refrigerant used in heat pumps and air conditioners in the United States. It is 4,260 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere over a period of 20 years.
Because the refrigerants in household appliances slowly leak out and into the atmosphere, it is a problem. At the end of an appliance’s useful life, the remaining refrigerant typically enters the atmosphere when the device is crushed for scrap metal unless careful measures are taken to collect and destroy the refrigerant.
A heat pump that uses HFC 410a will release 12 lbs of the refrigerant over its lifetime. The climate impact of such a release, measured over a 20-year period, is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of burning 54 barrels of oil or driving a car for five years, based on the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalency Calculator which assumes an average distance of vehicle miles traveled of 11,520 miles per year.
Heat pumps are the most climate-friendly method of heating homes. They have a higher efficiency than other heating methods, which makes them more climate friendly. However, their refrigerant emissions can be reduced to improve the climate benefit.
While this is a key first step, the US could experience years of change.
California has established regulations that require air conditioner manufacturers and distributors to eliminate HFCs most harmful to the environment, including HFC410a, by 2025. Federal regulators are currently considering a similar rule.
The federal rulemaking is part the AIM Act. It was approved by both industry and bipartisan support in legislation signed into Law by Donald Trump in December 2020. The AIM Act conforms to the international agreement, known as the Kigali Amendment (Macron Protocol), to reduce HFC production and use. If not controlled, HFC emissions could fuel an additional half degree Celsius of warming in 2100.
Many appliance manufacturers are switching to HFC 32, a refrigerant that is less harmful as a greenhouse gas. HFC-32 is still 2,430x worse for climate than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years.
The newly passed update by the International Electrotechnical Commission will allow significantly higher limits on the amount of “A3,” or “flammable” refrigerants, including hydrocarbons such as propane, that can be used in heat pumps and air conditioners. The update allows the first use of such refrigerants.
For decades, propane and other hydrocarbon refrigerants were safely used in refrigerators across Europe and the rest of the world. In recent years, this use has expanded to the U.S. However, propane’s use in air conditioners has been blocked by safety standards that appliance makers and environmental advocates claim are too restrictive and are designed to protect U.S chemical manufacturers.
Hydrocarbon refrigerants, or what proponents call “natural refrigerants,” are only about three times as powerful as carbon dioxide as greenhouse gases. These small quantities of refrigerants are used in household appliances to ensure their safety and make any release of these greenhouse gases significantly less potent.
The update to the international standard for safety, which was under discussion and revision for nearly seven year before the vote, is widely considered a key step in expanding the use climate-friendly refrigerants. U.S. retailers cannot sell heat pumps or air conditioners that use propane, or other hydrocarbon refrigerants, unless they adopt the new international safety standard. This could take many years.
U.S. regulations and building codes adhere to the safety standards set forth by UL and ASHRAE.
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Steven Brewster, a spokesperson for UL, confirmed that the U.S. representative, who participated in the vote on the updated international standards, voted in favor the update allowing the expanded use hydrocarbon refrigerants. Brewster stated that the U.S. safety standard experts and Canadian safety standards experts would review the updated international safety standard once it has been published. UL adopts IEC safety standards often, but is not required.
ASHRAE declined comment.
A recently launched U.S. heat pump manufacturing company that promises “planet-friendly heating and cooling” welcomed the news.
“We’re currently caught in this vicious cycle where the more air conditioning and heating we use, the warmer the climate gets and the more we need air conditioning,” Vince Romanin, CEO of heat pump manufacturer Gradient, said. “The refrigerants we use today are not sustainable and scalable to a world where everyone has access to comfortable buildings that don’t make warming worse.”
Romanin wanted to use propane refrigerant when he started his company five year ago because of its low climate effect. But he has been held back by U.S. safety standards.
“We’re really excited about what IEC has done and we’re looking forward to the U.S. pushing change through faster to get similar rules for natural refrigerants,” he said.
Source: Inside Climate News