Natural refrigerants are coming to Vermont: We’re making the switch an energy saver

by Carol Weston, Efficiency Vermont Director of Programs and Implementation

A growing number of Vermont businesses are including a new expense in their financial plans: The replacement of equipment using hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerants with systems that use low Global Warming Potential (GWP), or natural refrigerants. The reasons for the switch vary – from averting a risk of fines for HFC leaks to reducing the use of a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Statewide, the scope of these upgrades could be substantial. HFCs are widely used in a range of equipment that relies on refrigerants to function. These include freezers, refrigerators, air conditioning systems and some heating systems. Because these systems are also among the largest energy users for businesses, Efficiency Vermont sees an opportunity for companies to leverage their refrigerant upgrades into a significant energy saver by choosing high-efficiency new equipment.

Right now, making this switch isn’t easy in Vermont. As is often the case when new technologies come to our state, it can be tough to find local contractors experienced with installing and servicing high-efficiency natural-refrigerant equipment. That’s why we’re teaming with the North American Sustainable Refrigeration Council on October 3rd to present a day-long workshop on natural refrigerants for Vermont contractors and grocers. We’re also helping Vermont businesses that aim to make a refrigerant switch to identify high-efficiency equipment.

What’s the problem with HFCs?

HFCs are among the six key greenhouse gases listed in the Kyoto Protocol for emission reduction, having a global warming potential thousands of times that of carbon dioxide. To understand the impact of HFC emissions, it helps to know two facts about refrigerants: 1. They tend to leak, and 2. One of the most widely used refrigerants is the HFC. Globally, the use of HFC refrigerants for air conditioning alone contributes about 133 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere yearly.

Findings like this are why 197 countries, including the U.S., signed onto a 2016 treaty to reduce HFC use by 80-85% by the year 2045. While the U.S. Senate has not ratified the agreement, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced that it won’t enforce Obama-era HFC reduction regulations, the EPA continues to issue fines for HFC leaks. For U.S. companies with large inventories of refrigerant-reliant equipment, the financial risk posed by those fines can be staggering. The supermarket chain Trader Joe’s, for example, was recently fined $500 thousand for alleged violations of the Clean Air Act and is now engaged in a mandatory protocol to reduce leaks and shift to low GWP refrigerants at an estimated cost of $2 million.

In other words, for companies as big as this grocer, voluntary refrigerant upgrades are part of risk management. In addition to large corporations, businesses of all sizes are budgeting for or actively undertaking HFC elimination, to guard against the possibility that states could mandate the change or that the U.S. federal administration could rejoin HFC phase-down efforts.

What’s energy efficiency got to do with it?

Anytime a business needs to buy new equipment, they logically view that purchase as an expense. At Efficiency Vermont, we view it as an opportunity for them to cut overhead for the lifetime of their new equipment by making that buy an energy efficient one. That’s why we take a statewide approach to ensuring that top-quality equipment is locally available, affordable, and serviceable. Through Efficiency Vermont’s statewide Efficiency Excellence Network of skilled service providers, we deliver the training and education needed to design, install and service efficient systems. We also work closely with manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, and retailers to make sure that quality energy-saving equipment is in Vermont at the lowest possible cost to consumers. As importantly, we inform our customers throughout the state about new options that align with their needs.

Learn more about Efficiency Vermont’s partnerships with the businesses that supply Vermont companies and households with efficient goods and services. Get the facts on the Natural Refrigerants Workshop: Mapping the Future, at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in South Burlington on October 3rd.

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