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News 4 February 2021

Phasing down HFCs in off- and weak-grid refrigeration

On 4 February 2021, Efficiency for Access published a new research note entitled ‘Phasing down HFCs in off- and weak-grid refrigeration: An opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions’. The report, authored by Richa Goyal, senior insight manager, and contributor Bex Paffard, aims to raise awareness around the continued use of fluorinated gases in refrigerators under 600 litres in the energy access community.

Access to cooling and refrigeration is one of the focus areas in efforts to enhance access to energy in low to middle income countries. However, a significant number of off-grid refrigerators, which are designed for use in off- or weak-grid settings, continue to use hydrofluorocarbon gases (HFCs) as refrigerants. While HFCs do not help deplete the ozone, many of these chemicals are potent greenhouse gases.

According to UNEP OzonAction, “Overall HFC emissions are growing at a rate of 8% per year and annual emissions are projected to rise to 19% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050.” If the current growth in HFC use is uncontrolled, efforts to keep global temperatures at or below 2°C by the end of this century will be at risk. Natural refrigerants, especially hydrocarbons (HCs), have a minimal impact on global warming and have emerged as a very popular alternative to HFCs in domestic refrigeration.

Calculating emissions from refrigerants

The research note investigates the penetration of natural refrigerant-based systems in the off-grid market and explores the extent of the climate change mitigation opportunity from phasing down HFC gases in this sector. It also proposes an impact metric for estimating refrigerant emissions for refrigerators with a capacity of 600 litres or lower, which will help energy access stakeholders working to enhance access to refrigeration understand how emissions from refrigerants are calculated.

This will enable them to standardise reporting of emissions from refrigerants across companies and quantify how emissions from different refrigerant gases contribute to climate change. The research note also estimates the climate change mitigation potential in using natural refrigerants in small refrigerators in the off- and weak-grid market. Finally, it provides a set of actionable recommendations for the energy access stakeholder community to phase out the use of HFC gases.

The note made the following findings:

  • The author and contributor compiled refrigerant type by refrigerator model information for off-grid Sub-Saharan African and South Asian markets, across more than 50 companies and 66 unique refrigerator models.
  • Of the 50 off-grid refrigerator companies whose refrigerator models were considered in the study, 53% use HFC gases.
  • The off-grid refrigerator market is dominated by the use of R134a and R600a.
  • 40% of the analysed refrigerator models use R600a and 47% models use hydrocarbons (R600a or R290).
  • More than 50% of manufacturers are still using the HFC gas, R134a. This is significantly behind the trend in Europe, where there is a total penetration of natural R600a refrigerant systems in the household fridge and freezer markets.
  • However, manufacturers who still currently use HFC gases have demonstrated strong receptiveness to move to natural refrigerants in the near term, particularly R600a, citing reasons such as higher levels of energy efficiency and the World Health Organization’s encouragement of the use of hydrocarbon-based vaccine refrigerators.
  • A lack of skilled technicians who can handle natural refrigerants was the biggest reported barrier to increasing adoption of HC systems in off-grid settings.

The author argues that the off-grid refrigeration sector presents a unique opportunity for additional climate change mitigation that can be achieved with minimal effort. This is because Europe has already demonstrated a penetration of 100% HC-based domestic refrigeration systems, and feedback from off-grid manufacturers demonstrates a high receptiveness to move to HC-based systems given a set of market enablers.

The current levels of 47% penetration of HC refrigeration systems in the off- and weak-grid market is a promising start. Furthermore, most of these households will be purchasing refrigerators for the first time, which provides an avenue for this sector to leapfrog directly to natural refrigerant-based technologies.

The report suggests that transitioning to a near 100% natural refrigerant based off- and weak-grid market is achievable in the run up to 2030, and the energy access sector is uniquely positioned to show its leadership on this topic. To help achieve this, it makes the following recommendations:

  • Impact reporting and enabling easier access to data on the types of refrigerants used by off-grid refrigerators companies: Energy access stakeholders, such as the Low Energy Inclusive Appliances (LEIA) programme, should add avoided emissions from hydrocarbon use to impact metrics; estimate emissions from the use of HFC gases in refrigerants in cold rooms and as blowing agents; and enhance access to data on the types of refrigerants used by off-grid refrigerator companies.
  • The role of ‘nudges’ and continued awareness building on this topic: The off-grid solar energy sector is one of the most responsible and conscientious sectors when it comes to environmental sustainability practices. Therefore, this is also a sector where the role of ‘nudges’ to pro-environmental behaviour from the donors, investors and policymakers can be particularly powerful.
  • Green procurement policies: The author calls on institutional customers such as governments and international agencies to add the use of HCs as refrigerants as one of the criteria in their procurement policies and procedures for domestic refrigerators.
  • Building repair and technical capacity for handling hydrocarbons: A lack of trained technicians who can handle HCs is one of the biggest obstacles to greater levels of adoption of hydrocarbon systems in the off-grid world. To enhance technical capacity in off-grid areas, it is crucial to leverage the efforts of programmes such as the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Multilateral Fund for the Implementation of the Montreal Protocol, GIZ’s Proklima programme, Kigali Cooling Efficiency Programme, Cool Coalition, and others.
  • Promote alternative refrigeration technologies: The author calls on key energy access stakeholders, notably aid agencies and foundations, to support the development of alternative cooling methodologies alongside vapour compression technologies. For example, Efficiency for Access Research and Development awardee, Fosera’s Peltier-based solar refrigerator avoids the use of refrigerants. The technology also has other important benefits such as fewer moving parts, greater repairability and portability.
  • The role of policy: The note recommends that tax incentives for HC refrigeration systems should be provided to help encourage the industry to avoid the additional financial implications of using HCs. Policymakers can also reduce duties on low global warming potential (GWP) refrigeration technologies; reduce or eliminate VAT on repair services for such technologies; and ease restrictions on the importation of spare parts for refrigerators using HCs.
  • Labelling for off-grid refrigerators: The note recommends that off-grid refrigerator manufacturers using HFC refrigerants should label their products and reveal information related to refrigerant type, its GWP value and refrigerant mass used on their website. This would provide a soft ‘nudge’ for companies to transition to the use of HCs.

Read the report here.