Natural refrigerants: in the future of air conditioning

credits: shecco

The 2030 scenarios for the air conditioning market presented at the Atmosphere-DTI (Danish Technological Institute) online conference are really impressive:

  • It is estimated that between 2019 and 2030 a total of 4.8 billion new cooling units will be sold (source: “The Cooling Imperative” drawn up by The Economist Intelligence Unit);
  • Annual sales will reach 460 million units, compared with 336 million sales in 2018 (source: “The Cooling Imperative”);
  • 40 % of total emissions come from construction and here HVAC contributes with 8 % (Source: World Green Building Council).

Really, then, conditioning is “the elephant in the room” as Marc Chasserot, CEO of Shecco, calls it: if you compare the market share of air conditioning (mobile, commercial, residential and industrial) compared to that of refrigeration, the first certainly does the part of the lion with more than 60 %.
More or less the same reports are recorded with regard to refrigerants. According to UNEP, air conditioning has a market share of 65 % for refrigerants, which is why, although the energy efficiency of appliances is a key issue for limiting emissions, that of the type of refrigerants is the same. With regard to them, today for conditioning the options available and in line with the F-Gas Regulation are:

  • HFC low GWP as R32 which has a GWP of 675, higher then the average of 400 to be reached by 2030, according to the F-Gas Regulation;
  • HFO as R1234yf, but in the atmosphere it breaks down into TFA, suspected of causing a number of problems to the ecosystem;
  • Natural refrigerants, which are currently objectively the only solution that does not present any of the problems of GWP and interactions with the ecosystem, which we find in the previous solutions.

If today natural refrigerants are only a niche in the air conditioning sector, shecco is convinced that in the Air conditioning sector we will see the same process happened in the refrigeration sector, where today natural refrigerants are becoming more and more popular and find uses in geographical locations and applications unthinkable only 15 years ago.

Moreover, industry’s consensus continues to grow: Egypt, India, Pakistan convert production lines to R290 but most of all gives to think China, which in recent years has converted 18 production lines to R290 and today has a production capacity of 4.5 million units/year. And China itself has been mentioned in the aforementioned report “The Cooling Imperative” as the nation that will guide the future market of the demand for air conditioning… but perhaps – we add – also that of the supply.
What about Europe? Europe is moving towards air conditioning with natural refrigerants for now, especially with R290 portable air conditioning: there are eight producers and it is estimated that in this sector all new units will be R290 within two years.

Air of change

Judging by market signals, technological developments, stakeholder perception, we are at the beginning of a transition that will bring natural coolants out of the niche and establish themselves in air conditioning. This is particularly true of Europe, which will soon have to revise the F-Gas Regulation. And as Bente Tranholm-Schwarz, Deputy Head of Unit, European Commission, DG Climate rightly points out at the conference, the situation in which we are reviewing the Regulation today is quite different from that of 2012, when the Regulation was born. Today, Europe has set itself the Green Deal strategy to achieve a decarbonised economy by 2050. This necessarily requires more effort on the part of all, therefore also from the cold sector; developments in natural refrigeration in recent years have led to new technologies now established on the market; last but not least, more and more studies appear that question the safety to the ecosystem of an increasing accumulation of TFA, a molecule that derives from the HFO environment. And since the precautionary principle is a pillar in the decision-making process of the EU, these studies cannot be ignored during the revision of the F-Gas Regulation.

Air of change not only in technology but also in supply and service:

  • There is an increasing rise in digitisation in order to make the plants smarter; And the covid emphasised the added value of being able to manage and control them remotely;
  • The “pay per use” model is affirmed even in the cold which becomes no longer a facility but a service, both for air conditioning and for refrigeration.

The years to come will be decisive for everyone, both for those who choose a new natural refrigerant technology that will contribute to the affirmation of these technologies also in the conditioning, and for those who do not and will therefore face a legislative landscape that is changing today.